A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Machete

June 9, 2012

Machete

There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a better action movie than Robert Rodriguez. He has a very pure sense of the melodramatic zeitgeist of low budget gorefest good times. His half of the Grindhouse film he made with Quentin Tarantino was a prime example. Planet Terror was a rollicking good time filled with over-the-top moments and with a fantastic sense of self-aware humor. In the middle of Grindhouse, as part of the faux seventies flavor of the film, there were a couple of make-believe trailers for films that didn’t exist – and one of them was for the gore filled revenge film “Machete.” Let’s start there: that trailer absolutely rocks.

The trailer played out the plot of a formulaic grindhouse action film that seemed instantly familiar. It was a Charles Bronson style revenge film. A “They should have made sure he was dead” plot about a deadly man with nothing to lose hunting down the men who set him up as the fall guy in an assassination attempt. It was was filled with awesome action and humor moments. Machete leaping out a window of a high rise hanging from a rope and smashing through the window beneath that. Cheech Marin as a vengeful priest. Machete on a motorcycle with a minigun mounted between the handlebars riding out of a giant fireball. I don’t know anybody who saw that preview who didn’t immediately want to see the actual movie (which, of course, didn’t even exist – which was the whole joke.)

The challenge Rodriguez had when he decided to expand that ultra-awesome trailer into a feature film was to find a way to put all those iconic story beats from the trailer into a coherent whole and deliver on the promise of the preview. Unfortunately I have to admit that in many ways it doesn’t feel to me that the film is as much fun as the trailer. It’s clever and entertaining but it also feels watered down, burdened by its own plot and constrained by the compromise of trying to work within the restraints of what was already established about the film by the faux-preview.

What appears to be the biggest problem is that Rodriguez hasn’t made the movie the preview was about. The preview was for a totally cliche seventies revenge film. That’s what I was gleefully anticipating when I bought this DVD. The movie starts out really strong in this mode with a hilariously gore-filled pre-credits sequence showing Machete as a federal agent in Mexico on a one-man rampage against a local drug lord as he storms a hideout in an attempt to rescue a girl (who it is implied is maybe his long lost daughter?) She betrays him and he has to watch helplessly as both she and his wife are killed by the drug kingpin (played fantastically by Steven Seagal attempting a Mexican accent) and Machete is left for dead in a burning building. Everything about this pre-credits bit delivers on the promise of the preview – perfectly catching the feel of the Grindhouse aesthetic from the deliberately poor editing to the cheesy blood spurting special effects to the gratuitous nudity. This was the movie I was looking forward to watching.

After the credits, though, it becomes an entirely different beast. The movie becomes one about the plight of Mexican immigrants in the southwestern US. The bad guys are not so much the evil Mexican drug lord (though he does still play a part) but are a corrupt senator, a group of racist redneck militiamen, and an evil political adviser. I can totally see where Rodriguez is going with this movie – and I respect it and want to see that film. It’s almost a companion piece to Once Upon a Time in Mexico – with its populist uprising against entrenched corruption theme. It just never quite works with the premise laid out in the pre-credit sequence or the trailer. It’s as though Machete got somehow transported out of his own movie and inserted into a completely different film. The real hero of this movie is the revolutionary leader Luz who by day helps immigrants get papers and jobs from her taco truck and by night runs the “network” to give a better life to the downtrodden. Michelle Rodriguez Is fun to watch in the role, and the real pivotal moment of the film for me is when she finally takes up the role of the mythical “She” – a legend she has created to inspire the people. I would totally have watched THAT movie – a kind of female Zorro film. But instead it has to be contorted to fit all the moments from the Machete preview into it. There’s a clash between these two movies that are trying to co-exist, and as a result both are weakened.

Another weakness of the movie is that it feels a little worn out in places. There are some scenes that feel as though they are recycled and re-purposed from other Rodriguez films. There’s the shootout in the girlfriend’s home that cribs from El Mariachi. There’s the assault on the church that feels as though it’s the same scene from Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Even the climactic battle in the redneck compound feels like a watered down version of the populist uprising that caps Once Upon a Time. It was always fun to see Machete finding new ways to stab badguys (and there are a couple great moments – like when he steers a car from the back seat by twisting the machete he’s stabbed into the driver) but that’s not quite enough to really make the movie work.

There’s also the matter of Machete’s supposed love interest. Jessica Alba plays a good hearted but misguided immigrations and customs agent who is investigating Luz and the network. There is much talk of how she is “betraying her own people” and she has a sort of smeared in shoe-polish look that is meant to imply that she’s Mexican but it really, really didn’t work for me. Okay, so Amanda informs me that she does have Mexican heritage, but in the film she appears about as Mexican as Charlton Heston. Some of the stunt casting in the movie is a lot of fun, like Steven Seagal as the drug lord or Robert DeNiro as the southern senator (one of my favorite bits of his is when he drops his southern drawl and admits that he’s not even from those parts and doesn’t even like it there) but Alba never worked for me. There’s also no chemistry whatsoever between Alba and the always awesome Danny Trejo. One of the recurring jokes of the plot is that all the women in the film fawn over Machete and throw themselves at him. He, in turn sort of stoically and resignedly gives in to their advances. I like the humor of a hero who is not so much a womanizer as cursed with irresistible animal magnetism – and I see potential there for some pathos even since he’s lost everyone he ever loved, but it does not make for any kind of romantic sub-plot. And yet the movie tries to imply that there is a romance there. Very odd.

Ultimately my biggest complaint about this movie is that it shows so much promise but can’t deliver on it. I see so much here that I really WANT to love. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin have been almost running gags in Robert Rodriguez’s work – appearing in cameos and supporting roles in almost every one of his films. Here, finally, they get big leading roles, and I was all ready to cheer and gloat. That the movie doesn’t provide the thrills I was expecting based on the trailer and even based on the first ten minutes of the movie almost feels like a betrayal. In the end I didn’t feel that Machete got his revenge for the death of his wife – even if all the bad guys ultimately did end up dead. Maybe my expectations were set too high – or were mis-directed by the promise of the trailer. Maybe it’s an impossible task to take a minute and a half of awesome iconic moments and build an hour and a half long movie out of them. This is not the movie I was hoping it would be though, and that left me feeling a little sad.

June 9, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Hercules (1983)

May 13, 2012

Hercules (1983)

When Amanda and I attended Pax East last month we were treated to a new episode of Moviebob’s Big Picture that featured a movie we desperately needed to add to our collection. Go ahead – watch it for yourself. Before we even left the theater I had gone online to order this movie so it would be waiting for us when we got home. Today we found the perfect opportunity to watch it while visiting our friend A.

Even with Bob’s summary we found ourselves overwhelmed by this movie’s cheesy glory. As the movie began we were astonished and delighted to discover that the Peabody Award winning MST3K episode “Outlaw of Gor” blatantly stole its soundtrack from this movie. It adds so much to the experience of watching this when the music reminds you constantly of a Mystery Science Theater episode. Indeed I think a familiarity with MST Hercules movies in general enhances the viewing experience. As does a modicum of knowledge about the actual Greek myths that have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with this movie.

I’m used to movies playing somewhat fast and loose with mythology to make them more cinematic. I enjoy things like the Clash of the Titans movies for example. This film however only uses some names from Greek mythology and sticks them in a silly Italian Eighties sci-fi fantasy.

This film takes a long time to get going. Mostly because there’s so much unnecessarily silly mythology to explain. The prologue explains at length about the creation of the universe from chaos and the gods who live on the moon manipulating the world of men.

Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty Hercules, who in this version of the tale is not son of Zeus but a kind of avatar of godly power transported into a human child and raised by adopted mortal parents. (I think it is cribbing from the very successful Superman movie there.)

When Herc’s parents are killed (one by a bear and one by a giant robot locust) he sets out into the world to find out why he is cursed with super strength and hunted by monsters. He eventually wins the love of the princess Casseiopea, who is promptly kidnapped by Areana, daugher of nefarious King Minos of Atlantis. Minos and his minion, the sexy alien Daedalus, are trying to overthrow the gods with science – or something.

One fantastic trait of this movie (one of too many to individually highlight) is the delightful level of acting on display. Lou is not by any stretch of the imagination a great actor, but his pure enthusiasm for the role is infectious. The collection of scantily clad Italians he is surrounded by deliver exactly the kind of heavily dubbed over-acting I’ve come to expect from such films. Add to the crazy wide-eyed capering some wonderfully Eighties costumes (some of which the ladies barely fit into) and some of the most delightfully cheesy “special effects” and you have a magical wonderland of a movie. The monsters Herc fights are all stop-motion-animated robots clearly designed for their appeal as toys for children. Everything in the movie sparkles and flashes with effects added in post. There’s a heavily over-used electronic synthesiser foley effect that is meant to imply that something magical is happening but which gave our friend A flashbacks to Xanadu. You can almost hear producers Golan and Globus in the meetings that the movie came from. “Superman is popular – let’s make our movie look like that. And have lots of Star Wars stuff in there too – like a glowing sword fight. The kids today love robots – lets have some of those in there and we’ll make a fortune selling little plastic toys!” The result? Hilarity!

Honestly I am astonished that until this year I didn’t even know this movie existed. It is so astonishingly and hilariously bad. Everything from the writing to the acting to the design to the effects is laughable. It has instantly become one of my favorite movies ever. Thank you Bob.

May 13, 2012 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

November 12, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Back when Amanda and I reviewed all the Harry Potter films back to back in a single week I said that the movie before this one was not much of a movie in its own right. The first movie feels incomplete, ending on a cliffhanger with almost nothing resolved. Ultimately I have to say that I think this was the correct choice, because by getting all that groundwork laid and out of the way the film makers allow this last film to be a rousing, powerful conclusion to the series. There’s so much last minute plot exposition that takes place in the last Potter book that it would have left this movie feeling unwieldy and bogged down if an attempt had been made to fit it all into a single film. As it is the movie suffers somewhat because there are so many tangled plot threads to unravel and resolve.

In book six Jo introduced the Horcruxes which contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul and keep him immortal as long as they continue to exist. Before he died Dumbledore only managed to destroy one (the ring) and Harry had destroyed one (the diary) but they failed to destroy the amulet, so there’s four or five Horcruxes left to be found and destroyed all in the last book. Then there’s the Deathly Hallows – the Resurrection Stone, the Invisibility Cloak and the Elder Wand – introduced in book seven. Not to mention the resolution of Snape’s story arc, the final reveal of Dumbledore’s plans, and the various character romances. The story of the Elder Wand alone was convoluted and confusing to me when I first read this book and I had grave doubts about the ability of the film makers to present it in a way that made sense, much less all the other stuff involved in this movie.

With all this in mind I think that director David Yates and his team did an admirable job creating a satisfying and appropriate conclusion to the Harry Potter series. Given the source material they had to work with the movie they have crafted is better than I had let myself think it would end up being.

By necessity much of the plot is elided, truncated and abridged. We find out nothing about the origins of the Elder Wand for example, and many of the side plots from the books have disappeared (such as the evil werewolf Fenrir Greyback who made Remus Lupin a werewolf and attacked Bill Weasley.) The result is a sort of intense and distilled rendition of the seventh book, which makes for great viewing and packs a pretty good punch.

Much of the power of this movie, I would argue, is derived from an inescapable sense of finality. There really has never been a franchise like Harry Potter. This movie represents the culmination of a meandering story involving a core set of characters that have become familiar over the course of more than a whole decade. I think that it is inevitable that after such a build up this movie would have a lot of power to it. Which it does. Watching this movie is like saying goodbye to old friends. Somewhat like the bittersweet farewells at a high school or college graduation.

So goodbye Harry, Ron and Hermione. Goodbye Snape, Dumbledore and Hagrid. Goodbye Flitwick, Slughorn and Trelawney. Goodbye Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. For all the issues I might have with you I have loved getting to know you over the years, and I’m going to miss you.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Mask of Zorro

November 9, 2011

The Mask of Zorro

About a year ago we picked up The Legend of Zorro as part of a big lot of movies we bought. Only when we went to watch it one night did I realize that it was not, in fact, this movie (which I enjoyed in an innocuous way back when it first came out on DVD) but its sequel. I didn’t mind owning that sequel, but it seemed foolish to watch that and not this movie first. So it has languished unwatched on a shelf until we eventually picked up this movie.

Of course I have always loved Zorro. I remember watching the old Errol Flynn version as a lad and enjoying the swashbuckling fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a masked warrior for the people with a sword who slices his iconic Z into his victims? Clearly inspired by Robin Hood, and just as clearly the inspiration for Batman. He is the ultimate outlaw, a champion of the common man, his alter-ego a dashing playboy.

Of course this movie is not so much a big budget re-telling of the classic Zorro story as a sequel in its own right. It’s sort of Zorro TNG. It starts out with Zorro’s triumphant victory as he leads the people of California in their successful revolution over the evil Spanish governor who has held them under his bootheel. After Zorro, actually the suave Don Diego De La Vega rides triumphantly into the sunset to re-join his young wife and his newborn daughter he finds himself confronted by the deposed Don Rafael Montero, who has guessed his secret identity. During the confrontation De La Vega is captured, his wife is killed and his daughter is taken by Montero to be raised as his own.

Twenty years later Montero returns to the shores of California from his exile in Spain with a nefarious plot to regain power. De La Vega breaks out of prison and soon finds a drunken young thief bent on vengeance upon the sadistic army captain who slew his brother. He takes this young but inexperienced and unpolished lad in as his apprentice and trains him through a quick montage to be the new Zorro in his place.

I enjoy this movie a lot. I first owned it when I got it from some Columbia House DVD club I belonged to in the late nineties, and I watched it a few times back then. In the end though I eventually sold it during some purge of my collection because, let’s face it, this isn’t a very spectacular movie. I would say that it is a movie well aware of just how utterly unambitious it is.

There is not a shocking or surprising moment in this entire film. It is Utterly predictable and plays out like one long series of cliches strung together to make a single plot. What amazes me is how little I end up caring. The movie doesn’t have to do any dramatic heavy lifting or involve any cool plot twists – it just had to create a plausible excuse for a series of action scenes, sword fights, cool stunts and snappy dialog. In that regard it succeeds wonderfully in every way.

There is an impressive amount of high difficulty stuntwork in this film. Acrobatic leaps and bounds, flips, dives and jumps from great heights. One chase scene in particular, as Zorro defeats a whole cadre of soldiers by knocking them off of their horses in creative ways, involves some of the greatest trick riding I have ever seen. The sword duals are plentiful and enjoyable.

Also enjoyable is the great cast the producers have brought in to fill the space between stunts and swordfights. Anthony Hopkins plays Zorro the elder with his usual panache. In the role of his daughter, raised in Spain by his mortal enemy is Catherine Zeta Jones, and she has just the right combination of sultry bravado and believable innocence. Then there’s Antonio Banderas. If ever there was an actor born to play Zorro this is he. I never really bought the notion that he learned to imitate a suave Spanish aristocrat in a single afternoon, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch him trading quips and crossing blades with everybody else in the film. Hopkins lends the film a sense of gravitas and Banderas provides that essential sense of fun.

In no way is this a great movie, but there’s no denying that it can be an entertaining way to spend a couple hours. Maybe not worth owning, or worth buying twice as I now have, but nonetheless perfectly entertaining mindless fun.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 600 – King Kong (2005)

plKing Kong (2003) – October 21st, 2011

While watching this interminable bloat-fest I wondered – several times – why we own it. And the answer is an easy one: Peter Jackson. After all, we both loved all three of the Lord of the Rings movies and they’re super long adaptations of something else, right? Right! So, how bad could this really be? I probably wouldn’t have bothered to actually buy the movie. I would have been content to borrow it from work or something similar that didn’t involve keeping it around the house. Andy, however, as has been shown by the sheer number of things we own that neither of us had seen or knew much of anything about, buys movies like other people buy candy. So okay. Owning it makes sense, given the rules our lives seem to operate under. But that doesn’t mean we should.

I am so sorry, Peter Jackson, but this movie is bad. You made a bad movie, Petey. Even the presence of Adrien Brody on my screen for most of the movie wasn’t enough to save it. And given how much I enjoy watching Adrien Brody, that’s pretty sad. Part of it is that Jack Black was on my screen for about an equal amount of time, and that’s so much more Jack Black than I can handle at once. I’ve now exhausted my reserve of Jack Black Patience for another two years or so. This movie would have needed not just Adrien Brody but every other actor I adore, plus some cute puppies and kittens or maybe some fencing to offset the amount of Jack Black I had to sit through.

I would now like to share a series of messages I posted to twitter while watching this movie (specific responses to friends in regard to the movie excised):

  • 7:23 – I am already well beyond my tolerance limit for Jack Black and I’m only 20 minutes into King Kong. This is going to be difficult.
  • 7:58 – Well, Adrien Brody has his shirt off. Best thing in the movie so far.
  • 8:10 – I’m an hour and ten minutes in and there’s TWO HOURS TO GO.
  • 8:52 – How is this movie NOT OVER YET? What do you mean there’s more than an hour left? I’ve been watching it for a year now, I swear!
  • 9:02 – So much pointless CG action. So much pointless slow motion. WHY ALL THE SLOW MOTION?!
  • 9:09 – It’s over three hours long. Padding is the last thing this movie needed.
  • 9:39 – Says my husband: “You would think he’d go climb a building now. No. They go ice skating first. No, I’m not kidding.” THIS MOVIE, PEOPLE.

Really, why am I writing a review? That all should tell you my impression of the movie right there. It’s pointlessly long and slow and padded for no good reason. Aside from Jack Black, my most enduring memory of this movie is just feeling like it was never going to end. Like it had been so padded full of unnecessary action and chase scenes – done in slow motion – that it had become a huge beanbag pillow of a movie and I’d sunk into it and was never going to be able to get up. The original King Kong from the 1930s was under two hours long, so even if this movie does follow the plot point by point (I admit, I’ve never seen the entire original so I don’t know just how faithful it is in terms of plot points) it’s clearly trying to do more. And not just more, but lots and lots more. Like every scene and every moment and every line had to be bigger and more grand and more impressive. But really what that seems to have done is just made it take up more time. I’ve got no problem with big grand movies, but the big and grand here just feels unnecessary and frustrating. Get on with the story!

If you somehow don’t know the basic story of this movie, it’s not all that complex. A movie director who wants to film an adventure movie on a remote island heads off with his crew and his new lead actress. They arrive at the mysterious Skull Island and soon find it’s full of all sorts of dangers, like a tribe of people native to the island who ritually sacrifice women to a giant gorilla. They latch onto the lead actress and the giant gorilla takes off with her and it’s up to the movie crew to brave the perils of the island to get her back. Which they do, of course. Because the point of the story is more the gorilla than the girl. And they get him too and drag him back to New York where they put him on stage as a curiosity. He breaks free and tries to recapture the actress and it all ends in flattened gorilla when airplanes shoot him down off a skyscraper after he climbed up to be with the actress. And let me tell you, having Jack Black say the “twas beauty killed the beast” line from the classic? Made me so sad.

Now, in this version of the story, the actress falls in love with the movie’s screenwriter, who’s along for the trip because he hasn’t finished the script yet. From what I can tell, the character names are the same (Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll) but Jack’s not a screenwriter in the original. I don’t really give a damn about that. Whatever his purpose is, he’s played by Adrien Brody and therefore my main reason for not tuning out completely for the entirety of this movie. He gets to go all action hero during the island segment of the movie, remaining determined to get Ann back despite giant leeches and vicious dinosaurs and a bunch of the crew getting killed and all. And the movie attempts to create this rivalry between Kong and Jack over Ann, and I’m pretty sure the purpose of that is to humanize Kong so his actions aren’t just animal reaction to Ann. That’s nice and all, but I’ve got a hard time sympathizing with him since he basically wants Ann because she’s the equivalent of one of those mechanical dogs that flips itself over as far as he’s concerned (no, really – she won him over by doing Vaudeville pratfalls). I mean, it’s terrible that he was taken from his home and drugged and paraded around in shackles. I’d be pretty fucking pissed off too. And I know that there’s a lot of talk about how the story can be seen as a metaphor for slavery, so humanizing Kong isn’t a bad idea. It’s just that even with the humanizing stuff in this version of the movie, Kong still wants to keep a woman as a pet and make her do tricks for him. I’m just not feeling that, okay?

Of course, the special effects are impressive. I’ll always give Peter Jackson credit for that. Technology has come a long way from the 1930s and with someone like Andy Serkis – who seems to have made a career of providing incredible motion capture performances – it makes sense to want to show off Kong himself and to show off all the work that went into creating Skull Island and everything on it. I get that. And I get that Peter Jackson loves the original and desperately wanted to make this new version something amazing and spectacular, but I almost wish it had been made by someone a little less in love with it. Or as in love with it but with a little less money at his fingertips. Because the combo of unbridled adoration and an enormous budget just made for an overly long effects bonanza, and while I like Peter Jackson, this movie just isn’t fun to watch.

October 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 598 – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – October 19th, 2011

When this movie came out in theaters I remember considering going to see it and considering some more and ultimately I just wasn’t excited enough about it to bother making time to go. I heard mixed reviews. Some people said it was pretty good, other people said it was mediocre, and other people said it wasn’t fantastic, but it was better than the third one. And you know, that’s just not the sort of ringing endorsement I need for something I’m not excited for on my own. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy the Pirates movies. But it’s pretty obvious that the first one was the best and the rest have struggled a bit to compare.

In the end, I played through the movie’s plot in the LEGO video game version before I actually saw the movie. It’s kind of a funny way to do things. I’ve played a bunch of the LEGO games, but before I played them I’d already seen the movies they were based on. If you’ve never played one of the LEGO games, I highly recommend them. The funny thing about them is that they really do a good job of recreating the settings the key plot points take place in, and they use the movies’ plots for the goals of each level. When playing, you can recognize that. Here, it was the other way around. In particular, I was amused to see that the end really did involve the rather complicated means of using the fountain of youth. And to be honest? Most of my interest in this movie came from that game. I just wasn’t really that invested.

Most of the movie is a bit of a blur to me, and I’m pretty confident that it’s not just that I’m writing this well after watching it. Not that it doesn’t have its moments, but it veers far too close to the trying-too-hard line for me to be drawn into it. I remember far more about the third movie and it’s been a lot longer since I last watched that. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Maybe it’s that this doesn’t feel like it needs to involve Jack himself in order to happen. After all, he’s not the only one who finds his way to the fountain of youth by the end of the movie. He feels almost incidental here, despite the crucial map everyone needs starting out in his possession.

On the other hand, I do applaud the choice to move on beyond Will and Elizabeth. Not that I’d have minded another two hours of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, but their characters had their arc. It would have been possible to go back to them, but it would have felt forced. Better to leave them and move on to someone new. Angelica, a former lover of Jack’s and a fierce pirate in her own right, was a lot of fun to watch. Penelope Cruz did a very nice job with the character, making her feisty and unpredictable, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again, to be honest. And I always have liked Barbossa. It’s fun seeing him play the sort of gray area character. Really, that’s one of the things I like about these movies: The pirates are almost always rooting for themselves. Oh, they’ll help someone else if it suits them (and by “suits them” I include blackmail and the like), but if left to their own devices, they are looking out for number one. And that’s pretty consistent even here.

This movie’s plot centers on the search for the legendary fountain of youth. A number of different people want to find it, so it’s a bit of a race to get to it along with the necessary items one needs in order to use it. Said items are a pair of silver chalices and the tear(s) of a mermaid. It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt. Jack ends up roped into it all for a couple of reasons: 1. He has a map. 2. Barbossa’s dropped his name. 3. He ends up hearing that someone using his name has a ship and is putting a crew together. Turns out it’s not him putting the crew together. Surprise! It’s Angelica, and the ship isn’t the Black Pearl, it’s her father’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Angelica’s father is the famed Captain Blackbeard, a pirate with occult powers that let him control every inch of his ship through his own will. Blackbeard’s interested in the fountain because he’s been told he’ll be killed by a one-legged man and he’d like to not be killed at all. The other folks who want the fountain are the British government and the Spanish government. And then it’s a mad dash and the aforementioned scavenger hunt.

I seem to recall some crossing and double crossing and Blackbeard’s kind of a jackass, but his daughter loves him and all. He’s got a missionary on his ship, captured a while back and spared because of Angelica (who had been set to join a convent before meeting Jack). Turns out it’s a good thing they’ve got him, because when they capture a mermaid they totally fall in love and without that she’d never have cried and there wouldn’t have been any magic tears and whoops, there goes the plot. Though to be honest, I found the mermaid storyline far more interesting than anything to do with Jack in this movie.

What this movie does well is to build more of the world it’s set in. I remember being pretty impressed with the ocean-going lore involved in the other movies and this one follows right along. The mermaids are nicely done and I like how that little storyline ends up going. I also like that Blackbeard has actual ships in bottles. These movies have a nicely unreal feel to them, which works for me largely because well, the reality of pirates isn’t nearly as romantic and fun as the fantasy. So taking these bits and pieces of superstition and fantasy and mixing them together is a good way to go. It’s just that what this movie doesn’t do well is engage me in its entirety. Maybe I’m bored with Jack. Maybe the franchise is bored with him. He was a great character to start with and I get that he’s at the center of the series, but I kind of wish he didn’t have to be. Moments like his reaction to Barbossa’s hollow wooden leg just don’t come frequently enough in this movie. I’m not sure where that leaves the franchise, and at least this wasn’t a bad movie, but maybe it’s time to call it a day before a bad movie is what they have to end on.

October 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 596 – Highlander: Endgame

Highlander: Endgame – October 17th, 2011

Oh, this movie. It’s miles ahead of its immediate predecessor and I’ll admit, there are some parts of it that I really quite enjoy. But it’s also got some really unfortunate flaws that squander its potential. I wish it had been better than it is, because one of the points behind it was to take the main character of the series – which had done rather well – and bring him onto the big screen. And since I love the series, well, I was totally on board. But then it goes and mucks with a lot of the established canon for the series (which had been rather good at staying internally consistent) and it gets messy plot-wise and there’s a lot of good material that’s just not used as well as it could be. It’s frustrating. And even more frustrating is knowing there was another movie after this, with the series characters, that I know enough about to know I will never watch it. I wanted so much better for the series cast.

As with all the others, this movie involves an epic battle between Immortals. In this case there’s a baddie named Jacob Kell who’s been hunting down Connor MacLeod not just to kill him, but to take away everything he ever loved. This is in retribution for Connor killing Kell’s father. Never mind that Kell’s father was, at the time, burning Connor’s mother at the stake. Kell’s been racking up heads and is now super powerful. Too powerful for either Connor or his younger kinsman, Duncan, to take on alone. Complicating matters are two things: Connor’s ennui and an old lover of Duncan’s (Kate, a.k.a. Faith) who’s taken up with Kell. There’s some more stuff involving the Watchers – a group of mortals who track Immortals and keep records of their lives – but honestly it mostly serves as worldbuilding and character development for the movie, not as an essential plot point. Eventually Connor and Duncan settle on what to do about Kell and there’s a big climactic fight.

So, here’s my problem with this movie: Kate. That’s not its only problem, but it’s the one that sticks in my craw. Because I don’t honestly think her presence in the movie is necessary. She gives Duncan a little bit of motivation, but how much motivation did he need other than Connor and the clan? Did he really need this wife he’d totally forgotten about to push him into facing the baddie? I honestly don’t think so, but there she is, lurking through the whole movie. And in the process she mucks with the canon provided by the series that Duncan is from. Maybe it’s not a big deal for this movie that Duncan MacLeod had never been married and was told he never would be, but it was a pretty huge plot point for the series. Not to mention that her character arc requires that Duncan had killed her on their wedding night so they could be together forever as Immortals and that seems, well, a little out of character for him. And then he doesn’t remember her when he sees her again in New York! Again, out of character. Duncan MacLeod is not a man who would ever forget a woman who meant that much to him and then it’s supposed to be this big dramatic love story that causes angst for Duncan in the present day. So her character arc messes with an established main character for the movie and it provides very little for the actual story.

Look, I have no problem with there being a romantic subplot. The other movies have romantic arcs and the series has a bunch of women Duncan sleeps with or has slept with or wants to sleep with. But Kate’s arc is so poorly handled. It could have been done well, but it wasn’t. The backstory could have been better. The prior relationship could have made more sense. They could have done so much more with her. So much better. And it’s all just a mess. Also, at the risk of sounding pedantic, when Kate asks Duncan to give her back her ability to bear children? That’s all well and good, but she never had it. The series (and yes, I am going to harp on that because they took Duncan from the series) established that even prior to full Immortality anyone with the potential to become Immortal couldn’t have children. Nitpicky, yes, but it’s mentioned multiple times. It’s a major thing for male and female Immortals alike. I guess I shouldn’t expect much better, considering the movies’ past track record with prior established canon, but I do because there are other things in the movie that do follow along.

The relationship between Duncan and Connor as cousins and friends and student and teacher? Yup, that’s established. The Watchers and their not-so-slowly evolving role as meddlers instead of just observers? The database developed by Methos with records of all the Immortals and their histories? Connor’s home and his adopted daughter? Those are all established pieces of plot and story and worldbuilding and I like all of that. And I want the Kate storyline to work. I wish it did. It would make the whole movie better if it did because the character development it was obviously meant to do for Duncan was a good concept. It’s just built on a flimsy foundation.

From what I’ve read, it looks like this movie went through some unfortunate changes when the Highlander spinoff series The Raven got canceled. I wish I could have seen the earlier versions of the screenplay or the original concepts. I suspect there were other things done with the romantic plot and I suspect some characters, such as Jin Ke (one of Kell’s followers) were more fleshed out. His interactions with Duncan and Kate suggest there’s more to his character and backstory, but we never see it, which is a shame. Given the themes of mistakes and redemption and the effects of a long life on the emotional and mental stability of those who’ve lived it? There could have been some really interesting stuff there. For that matter, why not do more with Methos? He’s in the movie, but he’s really just fanservice, which is silly since as the oldest Immortal and one with a particularly nasty past you’d have thought they could work that in there. And if we’re going to look at the series much of the subject matter of this movie had already been covered in there (Methos, Something Wicked, Deliverance, Comes a Horseman, Revelation 6:8, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Archangel, Avatar, Armageddon and To Be and Not To Be, to name a few relevant episodes). Oh well.

Honestly, I like this movie. I love the first movie and all, but my true love is the series. I greatly enjoyed seeing Duncan MacLeod get the focal role here and I loved seeing the Watchers and two of my favorite series characters (Joe Dawson and Methos) and it’s got some really fantastic fight scenes. Duncan and Jin Ke in Connor’s old condo? Fan-fucking-tastic. There’s a whole crapload of swordfighting in the movie and well, that’s one of the things I love about the entire franchise. I’m a sucker for swordfighting. It makes me happy like little else. I love Highlander as a concept because I love the idea of Immortals fighting with swords and leading these long and conflicted lives, and I mean conflicted both in terms of physical combat and moral conflict. Those series episodes I mentioned above? Aside from the Archangel/Avatar/Armageddon arc, those are some of my favorites in the whole series precisely because they deal with the concepts of past actions and consequences and just what might happen when one has lived for such a long time. And that’s what this movie is dealing with. I have no problem seeing Connor in the emotional state he’s in during this movie. I mean, realistically speaking, Christopher Lambert was getting too noticeably aged to keep playing an Immortal character who never grows old, so it was time for him to officially pass the torch. But it works for me in terms of character and plot too. So yeah, there’s a lot for me to like here. I just really wish that the Kate arc had been better handled. It would have made the movie far more solid and fun to watch.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 595 – Highlander III: The Sorcerer

Highlander III: The Sorcerer

Now, why on Earth would they call this movie Highlander III when there was no Highlander II? One of the great mysteries of the ages, I suppose. I mean, there’s really no good explanation for why they’d make a third movie when it’s really not the third because the second doesn’t exist. No, really. I don’t want to hear it. They never made a second movie. Perhaps they considered making a second movie and then decided that what they’d come up with was so very ridiculous that they should just roll right on ahead and leave even the concept of a second movie behind. And really, the fact that I will concede that this movie exists and remain adamant that no second Highlander movie was ever made, really should say something. Consider this a mini review for an imaginary movie. So, after the second movie wasn’t made, they made this. And it is clearly an attempt to capitalize on the first one, down to aping the whole plot with a new cast.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t really know what to say about this movie aside from that it’s really pretty pointless. The plot follows the first movie almost point by point, but adds in a mysterious Japanese sorcerer who can create illusions. And then kills him off. But really, aside from him (and his real purpose is to make the villain more dangerous, since he can do magic and all) the movie is a cheap facsimile of the first. Connor trains with a teacher in the past. Connor has a romance with a mortal woman in the present. Connor faces off with a villain who killed his teacher. Someone Connor cares about is put in danger by the villain. Connor faces off with the villain and wins. Hurrah! It’s really pretty impressive how close it all is. The particulars are different, but the general arc is the same.

I will grant that given the set-up of the universe here, there are going to be some similarities if you want to retain the same feel as the first movie. And to continue things, you’re going to have to ignore the assertion the first movie made that Connor MacLeod was the last Immortal left after all the dueling and beheading was over. Because really? The swordfighting and dueling and so on are a big part of the first movie and to just present a swordless movie would be silly. Therefore you need some adversaries. However, just because you’re going to want an Immortal adversary and some swordfighting doesn’t mean you need to repeat the same plot over and over. The series did suffer a little from villain-of-the-week syndrome, but it also found new ground to cover, so it can be done. And tomorrow’s movie does manage to try a new variation on the theme. This movie? Well. It tried. A little. And it falls flat.

The particulars here involve an old teacher of Connor’s having magic powers. He tried to get Connor to take his head a couple hundred years back, so Connor would have his powers. But Connor refused, which meant that when semi-badass raider Kane showed up, he was able to take the teacher’s head “and with it his power” as the universe’s canon goes. Then he got trapped in a cave for a couple of centuries, which I’m sure sucked a whole hell of a lot. When he finally escapes in the modern day, he goes after Connor. I really can’t argue with the magic powers all that much, because this is, after all, fantasy. And we’re dealing with people who are immortal and chop each other’s heads off with swords, resulting in huge lightning shows where they absorb their opponent’s life energy. Magic powers aren’t so far-fetched, I suppose. But they’re basically illusions, and the effects have no aged terribly well. Alas.

I think my biggest issue with the whole idea of magic in this universe is that it seems like a cop-out. It feels cheap here, and somewhat unnecessary. Really, the best purpose it serves is to make Kane more threatening, because there’s no doubt about it that he’s not half as menacing as the Kurgan was. He’s like Kurgan lite. All the hardware, half the badassery. It’s not really Mario Van Peebles’ fault. It’s just that Clancy Brown’s Kurgan is so damn hard to outdo. Without the magic powers, I’m sure Connor would have taken one look at Kane and been all “Pfft, amateur.” And then he would have taken his head and the movie would have been over before the romance with the archaeologist who knows all about Japanese history even got to begin!

This is feeling like a short review, and it is a short review. But what else is there to say? This is a rehash. I’ll commend it for ignoring the movie-that-does-not-exist and for sticking with the Immortals fighting with swords routine, but when it comes to going deeper or trying to explore themes of immortality and having to fight to survive even if you don’t want to, and all the things that I really like about the first movie and about the series? It doesn’t bother. It touches on what the first movie touches on, but it says nothing new. So it feels thinner and less substantial. But hey, at least it didn’t do something ridiculous, like claim that Immortals are aliens from a planet called Zeist or whatever. That would just have been silly.

October 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 594 – Highlander

Highlander (Director’s Cut) – October 15th, 2011

I’ve been saving this movie for two reasons. The first reason is that I love it and I didn’t want to waste it early in the project. The second reason is that this movie spawned sequels that, well, make me sad just by existing. And we’ll have to talk about that. Then again, the movie also spawned the television series, which is perhaps my very favorite television show of all time aside from Star Trek (and Star Trek is on a level all its own, so I usually discount it in this sort of judgement). It’s a weird movie with a weird following and have you heard there are plans to do a remake? Yes. There are plans to do a remake. That’s the sort of legacy this movie has.

Let’s talk for a moment about the bizarre array of related media that this movie inspired before we go talking about the movie itself. I’m always amused by discussions in other fandoms when it comes to ignoring bits and pieces of canon. Highlander fans have had to become quite skilled at denial. We’ve had to be, given some of the bizarre self-contradictory stuff that’s been put out. Not only is there the sequel-we-don’t-ownl, but there are actually three more movies after that. And an anime movie. And an animated series. And a video game based on that animated series. And the live action television series. And the book series based on the live action television series. I think there’s yet another video game out there and as I said, there’s a remake in the works and a new book series that’s looking for funds through Kickstarter (or it was a couple of weeks ago) so, that’s a lot. All from this movie. Something about it just makes people want to keep making stuff based on it. I’d say it’s an attempt to cash in on the success of this one but after all of the weird crap that’s been put out, it’s not like making something Highlander-based is a guaranteed success. Far from it.

I would say that this is somewhat of a polarizing movie. I’ve met people who love it – quite a few people – and I’ve met people who hate it and think it’s the most boring piece of crap they’ve ever seen. I’m one of the former. My mother is one of the latter. There’s just something about it and I don’t know precisely what it is. Personally speaking, I have a great fondness for kilts, swordfighting and the concept of immortality having both positives and negatives. So, really, this movie is tailor made for me. The series goes into it in more depth, but this movie definitely touches the key points. And has a bunch of fight scenes with clanging swords and lightning. What’s not to like? Okay, I can see how people might not be able to get into both the historical setting stuff with Connor MacLeod and his first love, Heather, living together in medieval Scotland as well as the modern murder mystery type stuff. In that sense I can understand that there’s a limited audience there. The movie has quite a few different genres tossed together and while I happen to think it works well, other people might well be turned off by one or more aspect and that would be that.

Since the story deals with a character who is “Immortal” and his background, it necessarily involves some bouncing between time periods. We meet Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod as he’s about to go into battle for the first time. He gets his ass killed and then rises from the dead only to be cast out from his clan because they think he’s possessed. Eventually he and a woman named Heather settle down in the ruins of a castle in the middle of nowhere, and he seems pretty content with that until Sean Connery shows up and tells him he’s immortal and has to learn how to fight duels to the death-by-beheading. Because that’s what Immortals do in this movie’s world. In the modern world Connor is living in New York and working as an antique dealer. When he gets into a duel in a parking garage and leaves the body behind, along with some traces of his super special katana, the police get involved and start to investigate him. So we go back and forth from the present day, where forensic specialist Brenda Wyatt has zeroed in on him due to her interest in swords and the past, where he trains with his new teacher, Ramirez (that would be Connery) and learns about being an Immortal. And through it all is a villain called the Kurgan, played with gusto by Clancy Brown. He’s a raider with a skull helmet in the past and a punk in a leather jacket in the present and he is a fantastically evil villain. I adore him.

The thing about villains in the Highlander universe is that they need personalities, but they don’t really always need motivation to be villains. After all, the universe has canon set up in such a way that the main characters fight other people with swords as a matter of course. That’s how they live. That’s half the point of the whole endeavor! So you’ve got a reason for your hero and your villain to be fighting. They fight because of course they fight! So really, what you need to do for your villain is make him evil. Make him power hungry and bloodthirsty and make him a jackass. Of course, in the series they had to do more than that or it would have gotten mighty boring, but in the first movie? Not so necessary. Set the Kurgan up as a dude who likes the high he gets from chopping other Immortals’ heads off and you’re good to go. I know I’ve complained in the past about villains that are evil just ’cause, but really, that’s not the case here. The Kurgan wants to be the last living Immortal so he can have all the power for himself and use it to rule the world. That’s some mighty fine motivation. Simple, blunt, but it’ll do. Especially when Clancy Brown seems to have had so much fun with the part.

I’ll admit, the love story part of it isn’t leaving me swooning, but I’m not really a swooning sort of person, so I don’t hold it against the movie. What I do like is how clearly the movie shows that part of the lives of the Immortals in this world is that they’ll have to say goodbye to people they love and they’ll have to move on with their lives and start fresh. In the modern day scenes Connor is flirting with Brenda and while there are ulterior motives at work for both of them, in the end there is a romance there and it’s just as believable as Connor’s romance with Heather. And it’s not that he’s forgotten Heather, it’s just that it was hundreds of years ago. That’s the sort of thing I like seeing in stories about immortality and immensely long lives. It’s not just not dying. It’s living through the deaths of others.

I would be remiss in my reviewing duties for this movie if I didn’t also mention the soundtrack. It’s entirely done by Queen, and it is fantastic. It’s just one more thing on top of everything else about this movie that makes me love it. Sure, it’s a little ridiculous and sure, it’s got some special effects errors and sure, it’s got its detractors. But it remains one of my favorites, despite the flaws and despite the sequels and despite everything. It’s got enough fun to it and it pushes enough of my buttons that I will always enjoy it.

October 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 593 – Green Lantern

Green Lantern – October 14th, 2011

This movie makes me sigh. I want to like it. I want it to be good. But I also want to live in a magic flying houseboat. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. And I admit, I don’t hate this. It’s just that I don’t hate it even though it’s a total mess. There is so much wrong with it that it’s hard to even begin. When it came out I learned that my mother – my mother who seemed to pooh-pooh comic books all through my childhood – loved Green Lantern as a child. We mentioned the movie and she was all “Oh! Hal Jordan!” and she recited the oath and everything. Who knew, right? Even her own brother – the rightful owner of all of the Green Lantern comics she read – had no idea. We told him the other day and he was shocked. And amused. And yet we could not recommend this movie to my mother. At all. It’s not that she has a problem with action, and clearly she liked the comic book character, it’s that I couldn’t bear to see her watch something so bad based on something she apparently loved so much. It’s bad enough for me, and I know absolutely nothing about the source material beyond the most basic of basics.

I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies by now and you know, some handle backstory better than others. Iron Man? Fantastic. X-Men and X-Men: First Class? Yeah, they did a decent job, especially given that they were dealing with ensembles. Batman Begins says right in the title that it’s an origin story and it should go without saying that a crapload of time is going to be spent on backstory. That’s the thrust of the movie. Comparatively speaking, I’d say Iron Man and Batman Begins are doing roughly the same basic job, introducing a person, showing their personal crises, then showing how they become masked heroes and deal with their first real challenges. And this movie? Wants to be one of those. It wants to introduce a person – Hal Jordan – and take him through the process of becoming a hero and facing a crisis and dealing with a bad guy. Except it’s so damn muddled.

Part of the movie’s problem is that it does a heck of a lot of telling and not nearly enough showing. Movies are visual media. They should be showing. I’ll point back to my review of Macross Plus, which has two different versions. In one, the character of Isamu (a hotshot fighter pilot – sort of like Hal Jordan here) is introduced through a lot of dialogue about how he’s lazy and takes risks and whatnot. In the other? He’s introduced by a dialogue-less scene where he stands outside and plans his flight path with his hand before getting in his experimental jet and painting a picture with his exhaust trails. This movie? Picked the dialogue. It should have painted a picture. That right there is indicative of a movie that feels like it needs to spell everything out for the audience. And that’s a pity, because there are some really strong visuals here. They’re just not being used to their highest potential because every time something could be said visually, it instead gets a whole lot of expository dialogue vomited all over it.

The other major issue I have with this movie is that it’s just plain messy. And I don’t mean visually. Obviously it’s a superhero action movie, so there’s a lot of action going on and that’s fine. Sure, sometimes it feels like everything is green and therefore it’s hard to focus on the important green things and not the green background and green unimportant things, but the movie is about a dude who makes green things out of pure will. I expected the greenness. No, when I say it’s messy I mean it’s all over the place. We’re in the past and we’re watching Hal do a jet fighter test and we’re meeting his proto-adversary and we’re in space seeing a bunch of guys we don’t know get their souls sucked out by the big bad guy and we’re watching Hal train and then he’s back on Earth for some romance and then he’s back in space again and then he’s on Earth and oh right! Adversary grows a giant brain! Then the big bad is there and there’s romance too but we can’t linger on that too much because Hal has to make good on Chekhov’s Gravitational Pull! There is so damn much plot in this movie it’s leaking out the edges, which is probably why none of it quite works. I think my favorite bit of pointlessness is when Hal goes back to the planet he trained on (for like, a day) and begs the other Lanterns to help him save Earth because even though he said he wasn’t going to be a Green Lantern he knows now that he has to be one and he needs their help! And they say no so he says “Okay, that’s cool, we can do it on our own!” It’s absolutely ridiculous and they could have shaved a chunk of time off the movie by cutting it out and it’s yet another bit indicative of how poorly put together the movie is.

Honestly, I don’t want to bother going over the plot. The core idea – that a super powerful entity that feeds on fear is coming to Earth and Earth’s only Green Lantern must find a way to save his planet – is well enough for a comic book movie. I can even run with the training stuff, because it’s an origin story and it adds drama to have the hero be unprepared and scared (especially given that the villain feeds on fear, as I mentioned). And of course he has to be somewhat isolated because bringing the full power of the entire Green Lantern Corps against the villain would lessen the dramatic tension. But then they add in the minor adversary and try to make this whole jealousy thing happen when it comes to the romantic interest and there’s tension between the romantic interest and the hero and that’s not even touching on the fighter pilot stuff. If it wasn’t an origin story maybe the rest would work better, but having the origin in with everything else, oh, just, no. So overloaded.

Now, like I said, I did enjoy this. I didn’t love it and it’s far from the top of my comic book movies list. But it’s also not at rock bottom. I prefer it to say, The Spirit and it’s certainly miles ahead of the 1990 Captain America, so it’s got that going for it. But if I’m going to be honest about that, I should also be honest about thinking that a sequel has the potential to be so much better than this. They’ve got the worldbuilding out of the way! They don’t have to explain the Green Lanterns or Hal or anything like that. It’s all been done in this mess so they could leave the mess behind and focus on the story. And that would be such a relief and really, they’ve gone to all that trouble to set everything up so it would be a shame not to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, after this much of a mess I don’t think a sequel is very likely at all.

October 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment