A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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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

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 579 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – September 30th, 2011

I admit, I have fallen way way behind with my reviews. I’m writing this almost three weeks after seeing it. It’s not easy writing a substantial review every day even when the movie really deserves one. It’s almost harder when the movie deserves something good. If I’m tired or not terribly sharp or just cranky, then whatever I write is going to be crap. And that feels so unfortunate to me. But then I get hung up on whatever review I stopped at, and if it’s something I’m having trouble writing about, I don’t go on and write others. Not easily. I sit there and stare and wonder just how to say what it is I want to say. Fortunately, I made some notes here, so I can remember a few of the points I wanted to make. And this isn’t the review I got hung up on, so hopefully I’ll get back on track soon.

I remember when this came out I was working at the video store in Pennsylvania. It was a huge big deal, this gorgeous wire-fu movie with a romance and action and a sweeping story of struggle and yearning. And the cast! Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow got the most attention when I heard the movie spoken of, but Ziyi Zhang gained steam quickly because she’s fucking awesome. And it came very very close to being overhyped to me. It was like The Matrix, where every person who came into the store would ask if I’d seen it and if I said yes, they wanted to have deep and insightful discussions and if I said no I got a long diatribe on how much I needed to see it and how it would change my life. So, I avoided it. For a little while. I don’t remember what made me break down and watch it, but I did. And I was so glad I did, because it is indeed a beautiful and beautifully made movie.

The thing is, I don’t really want to have deep and insightful discussions about this movie. I just want to appreciate it. The fact of the matter is that I do not know nearly enough about the culture(s) portrayed here or the time period they’re portrayed in to feel comfortable viewing this movie from anything but a modern and decidedly white US perspective. But then again, I think that might well not be a bad thing. I’m curious just how much of the movie’s content is modern commentary on women’s lives in an earlier time period. I don’t doubt that women did at times stand out and go against the grain, but I don’t know just how prevalent that was in this time and place. If much of the point of the movie is that the women in it have been outsiders (and that is key to the plot), then of course there will be women in it who try to break in.

The story follows four or five main characters as their lives converge around a legendary sword. Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), a martial arts master who hopes to retire from a life of combat brings his sword, the Green Destiny, to the supposed safe-keeping of a friend. He entrusts it to another friend, Yu Shu Lien, for the journey. Yu Shu Lien is also a skilled martial artist but was not trained like Li Mu Bai because she is a woman. The two have long been interested in each other romantically but due to social and cultural traditions, they’ve never spoken of their feelings. While Yu Shu Lien is visiting the friend the sword is being given to, the sword is stolen by a masked thief who displays amazing martial arts skills. Eventually it’s revealed that a young woman, Jen Yu, is the culprit, but she’s a noblewoman due to be married soon. Her teacher is her nurse, a woman made bitter by rejection from the best martial arts school because of her gender. And so the movie goes, with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (along with a few others) facing off against Jen Yu and her teacher, Jade Fox.

Ostensibly, the impetus for it all is the sword, which is pretty awesome I will admit. But really the impetus for it all is society and the restrictions it places on the women in the movie. Jade Fox took on Jen Yu because she wanted an apprentice to help her get revenge for being excluded. Jen Yu wants a life of adventure that she could never have under the societal restrictions she’d be held to as a married noblewoman. She’s had a taste of that life before, living in the desert when her family moved for a time. She ran off after a group of bandits and ended up falling in love with their leader, Lo. But she had to go back eventually and found herself trapped. And then there’s Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who seem at first to be the focus of the movie but end up a tragic side note to Jen Yu’s story.

Now, I did a little poking around when we watched this and came across some scholarly opinions. But I reject the interpretation that claims that Jen commits suicide in the end and that it’s a sign of her hopelessness in regard to freedom in a patriarchal society. That interpretation seems to completely miss the more fantastical bits of the movie and the direct reference to a legend told by Lo earlier in the movie. The way the legend is told, anyone who reaches the top of one particular mountain can make a wish and dive off. The young man in the story made his wish, dove off and flew away, knowing his wish had come true. So when Jen tells Lo to make a wish and then dives off, there is some ambiguity there, but I don’t see it as helplessness. The ambiguity is more as to whose wish will be fulfilled. Lo is the one with the faithful heart mentioned in reference to the legend, so perhaps it will be his wish. But Jen is the one who dove, so perhaps it will be hers. And perhaps they’re one and the same. That’s the unknown, and as she flies away, Jen is clearly at peace with whatever the outcome will be. She spent the whole movie railing against authority and fighting for the right to make her own choices. She made a choice in the end. What it was isn’t important.

The story is a sad and beautiful one, with a lot of little stories woven together to make a whole. But I realize I haven’t even touched on the visuals. Obviously the acting is superb or the story wouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but the visuals truly complete the movie. And I don’t just mean the backgrounds and settings, though those are amazing and lush and real in a way many movies fail to make one feel from the other side of the screen. I also mean the fight scenes, which are plentiful and impressive. In a movie where part of the story hinges upon the physical skills of the main characters, this also has to be spot on in order for the story to work, and it does. It is a gorgeous movie from top to bottom, inside and out.

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

Movie 573 – The Return of the King (1980)

placeholderThe Return of the King (1980) – September 24th, 2011

Where do I even begin? I’d seen this ages ago and unlike the other two animated adaptations, this one just didn’t stick with me. I had vague memories of songs and unpleasantness and that was about it. Now I know, I must have blocked it out of disappointment. It’s a truly sad conclusion to the animated trio of movies and I’m going to have to watch the new version of the last book several times to get this thing out of my head. And while I’m more than happy to re-watch the new adaptations any time, it’s a sad state of affairs when one is watching them to clear out the memory of Meriadoc Brandybuck as voiced by Casey Kasem. Never should one have to wonder if Merry is going to say “zoinks,” though I suppose Hobbits do tend to smoke a lot so there is that to consider.

We really only bought this because it seemed silly to have the animated versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and not the conclusion. I don’t know, now, why that was so silly. We should have known better, really. Andy had a much clearer memory of it than I did and we still purchased it. Maybe he likes it better than I do. All I can say is that about five minutes in I started to tune out. Why? Because it became apparent that this movie was picking up from The Hobbit, character designs, singing and all. And while that style worked okay in a story that was intended for a younger audience, and the songs in that were taken from Tolkien’s writing, I honestly think it is terribly ill-suited to this story. And these songs? No. Not Tolkien. No.

It’s an odd sort of follow-up, having to deal with the strange pacing of the Bakshi movie that preceded it. After all, the last one ended in the middle of The Two Towers, with Helm’s Deep dealt with but the travels of Sam, Frodo and Gollum only just beginning. And on the flip side, since they had all that stuff from The Hobbit this version picks up from that too. I mean, why bother actually animating what was going on in this story when they could make flashback montages? Apparently it was always intended to be made as a sequel to The Hobbit, regardless of the Bakshi film, which I just find bizarre. Sure, let’s omit the entire first two books. That sounds like a grand idea.

There are some events in this one from the second book, but for the most part it is an extremely truncated version of The Return of the King. It’s heavily narrated and contains quite a few songs, making it feel more like an animated musical Cliff Notes version of the book as opposed to an actual adaptation. I’d go over the plot, but like I said, I tuned out. I know things happened, but I don’t really care. And I don’t think the movie much cared either, given the aforementioned narration. I do recall that a lot of time was spent on Sam carrying the One Ring and considering what he might do with it, making the world one huge garden full of beautiful plants. So instead of a Dark Lord they would have a Gardener? Not dark, but green and bountiful as the harvest? Riotous as the vines and stronger than the roots? All shall weed and despair? Whatever. I rolled my eyes whenever the movie tried to make it this big damn hero moment.

The movie does seem to focus mainly on the Sam and Frodo aspect of the story, but there are bits from the rest as well. The battle at Minas Tirith and Denethor’s madness and all that is indeed in there, but it has so much less impact in this movie than it should because there’s no real lead-in to it all. Who gives a damn that Eowyn pulls off her helmet and reveals herself to be a woman when facing down the Witch King in the Battle of Pelenor Fields when we weren’t ever really given any time with her prior to that? The whole Gondor aspect of the plot feels so much less for the lack of time spent on it. And this isn’t a long movie at all. It’s under 100 minutes all told, so the lack of details and plot was clearly intentional. Someone decreed that they didn’t matter so much and weren’t connected to The Hobbit so they didn’t have footage to do flashbacks from so they’re not there.

I just can’t bring myself to take this movie seriously. The songs alone would disqualify it but then there’s the goofy looking character design and the complete lack of several major characters and plot points. And yet they kept in things like the Mouth of Sauron. Come on, the Mouth of Sauron is supposed to be scary, as are the Orcs. How am I supposed to take either one seriously when they’re done by Rankin and Bass? I just can’t do it. Maybe if I could have forced myself to keep my attention on the screen I’d have found more positives to say about the movie, but I couldn’t. And that should be damning enough, really.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Return of the King (1980)

September 24, 2011

The Return of the King (1980)

How can such a short movie seem so interminable?

After Ralph Bakshi’s strange rotoscoped Lord of the Rings movie ends abruptly after the battle at Helm’s Deep there was a need for a conclusion to the series. This movie, produced by Rankin and Bass like the Hobbit made for TV movie that came before it, is that conclusion. What’s bizarre about this movie is that it tries to follow up on the Bakshi movie, but it is also a sort of sequel to the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. It might have made more sense if they had re-made the first two books in the style of the Hobbit before moving on to this one, but I suppose there were rights issues, and it had only been a couple years since the theatrical animated Lord of the Rings film. So this movie attempts to be a sequel to the Hobbit that assumes knowledge at least of the happenings in the first two Lord of the Rings books but does not directly follow on to the Bakshi film.

The result of this odd choice is that this movie has to spend a LOT of time explaining what’s going on. We’re eased into the action by a lengthy prologue that takes place in the house of Elrond after all the events of the great war of the ring. The movie is told in flashback as the story of how Frodo lost his finger and the one ring as related to Bilbo. I suppose that from a story-telling perspective it’s slightly preferable to just a lengthy voice-over (although there are plenty of those later on) but it does somewhat eliminate any tension in the story since we know at the start how things are going to end up.

This movie also suffers from the problem the Hobbit film had, which is that the action scenes are necessarily truncated by budgetary restrictions. It’s not nearly as pronounced here as in the Hobbit, but it is still clear that the large epic battle at Minas Tirith cannot be fully realized in animated form. Oh, there are a lot of scenes of battle and carnage, but they all feel.. somewhat elided. We get to see little highlights of the battle, but for the blow-by-blow we must rely on the narration provided by Gandalf, who explains most of what’s going on.

All this narration and the prologue, and the internal monologues of the characters combine to make this a dreadfully exposition filled movie. I’d say there’s probably more exposition than actual dialog, which makes the movie rather tedious to watch. It is the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

Then there are the songs. The songs in the animated Hobbit movie, constant as they are, at least for the most part use Tolkien’s words. These songs were written by producer Jules Bass, and they are not very well written at that. The male chorus constantly singing about the ring bearer/the ring wearer are just another form of exposition, really, in an already exposition heavy movie. This is the movie that has the song about “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” and the famous “Where there’s a Whip There is a Way” song. The incessant singing is irritating and insipid.

I will say that the animation in this movie is significantly better, in my opinion, than that in yesterday’s film. It shows its Japanese anime roots rather more than the Hobbit did, (Such as the glowing hero pose that Sam strikes while bearing the ring) but it’s a significant step up from that film. I enjoyed seeing the character design from the Hobbit movie brought over to this deeper, more expansive story. As a movie, however, this leaves much to be desired. Amanda commented as we watched it that it felt like an abridged book on tape of the Return of the King with some animation added in. I’m very glad that Peter Jackson gifted the world with his absolutely stellar live action trilogy based on the same books, because as soon as we were done watching this we put his Fellowship of the Ring in to fulfill our Lord of the Rings needs. For decades this interminable and plodding adaptation was all that Lord of the Rings fans had, and that’s a kind of sad thing.

September 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 572 – The Lord of the Rings (1978)

The Lord of the Rings (1978) – September 23rd, 2011

Following last night’s movie, we move on to a very differently done adaptation of Tolkien’s works. Instead of the very cartoonish style of Rankin and Bass, we have here the rotoscoped animation from Ralph Bakshi. I know it’s got a very mixed reputation and to be honest, I’m not really a zealot about it in either direction. That being said, I do like it. I vastly prefer the newer Peter Jackson version of the story, but I don’t dislike this. I will grant, however, that it is an odd taste and I am well aware that my opinion will not be shared by many others.

I first saw this movie long before I knew what rotoscoping was. I watched it and for some reason I really liked it, odd as it is, and so it remained in my head that it was something I enjoyed even long after the last time I’d seen it. Some years later I learned about rotoscoping and what it meant and how it was done. Personally, I think it’s fascinating and produces some very odd stuff. I don’t know if it was the best choice of medium for this particular story, but there are some bits and pieces that I think work very nicely. Oh, it’s far from perfect, and I have some very specific issues (such as the actor who played Gimli being only slightly shorter than the actors playing the humans and elves and this not being adjusted in post), but I don’t have any real hate for it.

The biggest issue I have with this movie is that while it does tell the story fairly well, it’s paced horribly. Part of it is that the original book is incredibly dense. Even the incredibly long special editions of the new versions are missing whole chunks of story and entire characters, so it’s no shock that the story is compressed more than a bit in this animated version and that certain things were lost. But add to that the odd choice to carry the story out of the first book and into the second and it just feels off.

I won’t go into detail about the story, since really, I don’t think I have to. The basic points are all ther. Bilbo Baggins decides to leave the Shire and handing over his home and the One Ring to his nephew, Frodo. Gandalf later realizes what the ring Frodo has actually is and sends him and his friends off to Rivendell. Once at Rivendell a fellowship of Gandalf, the four Hobbits, two men, an elf and a dwarf is formed to take the ring to Mordor to destroy it. Action ensues. But where the original book ends with Frodo and Sam parting ways with the rest of the fellowship after Boromir tries to take the ring, this movie continues. We follow Frodo and Sam and see them realize that Gollum has been following them, then we see them capture him to force him to be their guide to Mordor. We also follow the rest of the fellowship. We see Merry and Pippin meet up with Treebeard and remeet Gandalf and we travel to Rohan and see the confrontation between Gandalf and King Theoden. And finally we see the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Well, not finally. I believe the Frodo and Sam bit is the actual end of the movie.

Consider that for a moment. If you’re not terribly familiar with the original books it might not sound like a bad thing. After all, why not end with a big climactic battle? The trouble is that the big climactic battle is actually the big climactic battle from the first half of the second book in the trilogy. In the new versions it’s the climax of the second movie. Here it happens and then there’s no follow-up to it. I believe this was done in the hopes of making the trilogy into a pair of movies, each handling roughly a book and a half. But then the second movie never got made. Not by Bakshi, anyhow. This wasn’t a two movie deal or anything. So when it didn’t meet with critical raves the second proposed movie never got funded. Instead Rankin and Bass took up the reins again and we got tomorrow’s movie. Alas.

Here’s the thing: I think the semi-realistic, dreamlike and sometimes very dark animation style of the rotoscoping works. It’s a stylistic thing and somewhat a matter of taste, but I do find it interesting. Some day I’m going to have to go back and watch the movie far more carefully than I did this evening as I’m not sure if this was intentional or simply a side effect of the rotoscoping process, but there’s a tendency for the darker parts of the movie to have more texture left over from the original live action footage. And I can see how that could be used very interestingly indeed. The goblins and orcs, for example, tend to show up in darker lighting than the more heroic characters, so they end up with more artifacts from the live action, making them grittier and more shadowy. The heroes, on the other hand, are shown in brighter lighting, resulting in less texture and a more solid appearance. And I can see how this side effect of the process could be used artistically to portray the differences between the heroes and the villains. Unfortunately, I suspect not quite enough thought or effort went into it to achieve such a thing. Still, it’s one reason I really do like the rotoscoping.

There are quite a few changes made to the story, which is only to be expected. In this version it’s Legolas who meets them after Frodo is stabbed by one of the Nazgul. It’s actually supposed to be an elf named Glorfindel, who’s got a huge history associated with him from The Silmarillion but who is otherwise not really crucial to the story of Frodo and the fellowship. It makes perfect sense to me to have changes like that. What I’m not terribly fond of is the visual depictions of the humans in the movie. They’ve got a very barbaric quality to them, with both Aragorn and Boromir wearing tiny little tunics with no pants or leggings and Boromir wearing a helmet with horns on. The lack of pants had me giggling far too much, what with the “Gondor needs no pants” thing that came from the meme where key words in famous movie lines are replaced by the word “pants”. But it’s also bizarre to me. Apparently Aragorn is the Pantsless Ranger. Me? I’d want something on my legs if I was going mucking around in the woods in all seasons.

That being said, my issues with the movie are mostly small things. They’re certainly not enough to quash my enjoyment of it. It’s entirely possible that said enjoyment is driven by nostalgia, but watching it tonight with a more critical eye than I did when I was a kid, I still have to say I think it’s a solid movie. I don’t expect everyone to like it. I do expect that the animation style will turn some people off by its very nature. But I don’t really care. I just wish that the second movie had been made to follow this one and made by the same people. The dark semi-realism of the animation here is, in my opinion, far more suited to the story than the cartoonish goofiness of Rankin and Bass. But that’s a complaint for tomorrow.

September 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment