A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

February 12, 2011

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

It’s been a little while since we’ve reviewed some Shakespeare. As we were combing our collection for something appropriately romantic movie for Valentine’s Day weekend, though, we realized that we have practically no traditional romances. I would have recommended The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a great Valentine’s movie, but we’ve already reviewed that (and Amanda didn’t particularly like it.) We both generally disdain the entire genre of romantic comedy. So we turn instead to this most famous of romantic tragedies.

I have to admit that although I have owned this lush and beautifully produced adaptation of Romeo and Juliet for years, but have not watched it until today. This is not because I feared that I would not appreciate this production because I had heard many times what a great job Franco Zeffirelli had done here, but more because it requires a lot of preparation for me to embark on a tragedy like this. My first exposure to the story of Romeo and Juliet was when I was probably about seven or eight years old and there was a production of the ballet on PBS. My mother had to explain to me a lot of what was going on. In the end my assessment was that it was a very sad story. Why, I wondered, would anybody want to watch something so upsetting? In the intervening decades I still haven’t come up with an adequate response.

Shakespeare frames his tragedy within a homily about the pointlessness of feuds between families. In that regard there is a sort of moral here. Nevertheless it is undeniably a sad tale of innocent young lovers and their inevitable doom. As such it is not something relaxing that I’m likely to put in of an afternoon. It’s a movie I’m proud to own and one that deserves to be in our collection, but it’s not one I think I’m likely to watch very frequently.

A couple things stand out in this particular adaptation. First and foremost is the elaborate production and costume designs. This movie manages to combine both a realistic medieval renaissance look and a fantasy feel. For example there are the intricate and wonderfully tailored doublets – color coded so that you can tell at a glimpse who is a Montague and who a Capulet. The Capulet revels in particular are a lushly produced feast for the eyes full of gorgeous visuals. Looking at Zeffirelli’s credits on IMDB I note that he has done production design on a large number of television adaptations of classic operas. I can clearly see this operatic influence in the design for this movie.

The other standout is the cast. Much has been made in the past about the youth of the lead actors Zeffirelli chose to cast. Shakespeare’s script clearly states that Juliet is only thirteen years old and it does change your perception of these characters to see them as impetuous young rebellious kids. In general I would say that this choice raises this adaptation above many others. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting do a great job showing us this irrational young love… for the most part. My one complaint would be that Juliet is a weepy young character prone to hysterics and Olivia’s loud crying almost never felt believable to me. Perhaps it has to do with the post-production additional recording that goes on for much of the dialog in the film. Maybe she just couldn’t weep into a microphone in a sound booth. The result was that by the fourth or fifth time that Juliet threw herself down racked by sobs I had to roll my eyes and throw my hands up. It’s a pity because in general I loved her performance. She is wonderfully expressive and able to deliver Shakespearean dialog as though it completely natural language. It’s just the crying.

Indeed I have something shameful to admit. This movie did not make me cry. This is unusual because it’s not terribly hard to coerce my tear ducts to action – but this film felt more like melodrama than tragedy. Maybe it’s that I had braced myself so much before even putting the movie in. Maybe it’s that I spent more time analysing the adaptation than empathising with the characters. Still – I am surprised. I never fail to tear up for Shakespeare in Love during the scene where they act out the closing of this play. I wish we were watching that tomorrow night, but we have other plans for Valentine’s Day itself.

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February 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 344 – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – February 7th, 2011

I was not looking forward to this movie. Granted, it’s a cheesy action movie based on a video game series I quite like, but I was not looking forward to it. In fact, I didn’t want to own it. I’m fairly sure I was vocal about not wanting to see it or own it before it even came out in theaters. It rubbed me the wrong way right from the beginning and yes, I blame the casting. It suffers from the same issues that plague The Last Airbender (and no, I won’t be watching that) and I know I said I had problems with it. And then one day I came home from work and Andy told me he’d bought it. We might have had words about that. And now we have a standing policy not to buy things without consulting each other first. When I grabbed a pile of movies for cheap at work I put them aside first, checked with Andy, and then paid for them. I think that’s a good policy, both for the collection and for our marital bliss.

All that being said, it was not as horrible as I expected. Of course, I went in with expectations about as high as a worm’s eye view, so that wasn’t hard. I can think of worse movies. I can think of worse movies in our collection. But that does not make this a good movie. Even the presence of two actors I quite enjoy isn’t enough to make this a good movie. Witty banter isn’t enough and pretty props and effects aren’t enough. It’s just plain not a good movie. And there were no spinning saw blades in the floors and the princess didn’t crawl through any cracks, so right there it fails as a movie of the video game for me. Were spinning blades in the floors too much to ask? I think not.

Part of the movie’s problem is that I just don’t buy Jake Gyllenhaal as the prince. He seems a nice enough actor, but I’ve always seen the prince in the games as a Han Solo sort of character. And to pull off that sort of character you have to ooze charm. You have to be so charismatic you could be loved and adored by the people you’re shooting. Or stabbing, as the case may be. And Gyllenhaal, well, he just seems to be a bit too serious. A bit too quiet. He just doesn’t do it for me. I haven’t seen too much with him yet, so I don’t want to speak to his abilities in other types of roles, but I don’t think he’s really the charming scoundrel type. He can’t pull off moments like selling a princess into slavery without making me want to slap him. That moment was really close to Beastmaster levels of disgust for me and there wasn’t enough survival-of-the-me snark to mitigate the grossness.

Gemma Arterton does a slightly better job with the banter and snark, which is nice. I mean, it’s kind of cool having a female lead who tricks the scoundrel male lead into feeling sorry for her before kicking his ass. That’s what I want from my Prince of Persia princess. Really, she outshines the prince whenever they’re on screen together. Can’t complain about that. And then there’s Ben Kingsley, who arrives on screen looking like he should have “Grand Vizzier” written on his hat in rhinestones. Oh, Ben Kingsley. You need to find some movies where you’re the good guy, or even a neutral guy. Or at least a better bad guy than this, bitter over being a king’s brother. Richard Coyle was the surprise here for me. I know him best as Jeff in the original Coupling series. Bizarre to see him so coherent, and I did enjoy seeing him do something so very different from what I know him from. Still, I wish it had been in something better than this.

The plot isn’t anything special. It’s your typical treason plot, with someone close to the king (they didn’t call him a grand vizier but come on – look at the beard!) plotting to take over the throne and setting up our hero to take the fall for it. We get some backstory, with the king adopting homeless orphan Dastan and making him the youngest of his three sons for some bizarre reason. The king’s brother tricks the three young princes to attack a fortified holy city so he can steal a magical dagger that contains the sands of time and which can be used to reverse up to a minute of time if needed. The king is killed, Dastan is blamed, he goes on the run with Princess Tamina, the ruler of the holy city, and together they have to try and keep the dagger out of the wrong hands while also stopping… the dagger from getting in the wrong hands. I mean, okay, Dastan knows he can’t let the bad guys get the dagger, right? So he takes the dagger with him when he heads back to the city where the bad guys are. Smart move, jackass.

There’s actually a whole plot in the movie where Dastan and Tamina head to a sanctuary in the middle of nowhere to try and dispose of the dagger by plunging it into the earth. Great idea, except one of Dastan’s brothers shows up (Garsiv, played by Toby Kebbell – and I must say I liked him, even if Andy is totally right and dude was pulling some major Karl Urban facial expressions) and then a bunch of hired hit men show up and it really feels like a climax. Sure, it’s not as showy as the real climax ended up being, but watching it, I realized there was another 36 minutes to go and kind of boggled. The movie lurches from action scene to action scene. There’s even a sandstorm. Saaaaaaandstoooooooorm. And no, that’s not the only MST3K reference that found its way into this movie for me. It is a movie perfect for riffing on (and yet RiffTrax hasn’t done it).

By the time the actual climax happens and there’s sand everywhere and time’s being reversed and then set going again and reversed again and so on and so forth I was so bored all I could do was snark about the lack of spinning blades. It was pretty obvious how it was going to go in the end, though I was amused to see that our hero had to subcontract a key part of the plan to another hero (the knife throwing Seso, played by Steve Toussaint about as well as one could play a role with so little to work with outside of action). It just left me feeling like with a budget like that, and material like the game(s), they could have done a better job. Frustrating, but there you have it. It didn’t grate on me as much as it could have, but it certainly wasn’t surprisingly good or anything. And seriously, if I’m ever a world leader, remind me not to have a grand vizier. Especially not one who looks like Ben Kingsley.

February 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

February 7, 2011

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

“Most people think time is like a river that flows fast and sure in one direction, but I have seen the face of time and I can tell you that they are wrong. Time is like and ocean in a storm.”

So begins one of the greatest video games of all time. A game which shares a title with this movie and very little else. The game is a near perfect blend of action, puzzles, and plot. It made you care about the characters of the nameless Prince and the rival princess Farah who is the only other person not corrupted when the sands of time are released. It has adventure, romance, magic and most of all a wonderful way of telling the story.

I remember seeing the previews for this in the theater and saying to my wife “we’re going to see that, right?” It was the same reaction I had when we saw the previews for the Clash of the Titans re-make. I knew this wouldn’t be as good as the source material, but I was curious to see how a truly great game would hold up when adapted into a summer blockbuster big budget movie. We didn’t end up seeing it the theaters though, and when I eventually bought the movie on DVD (at the same time that I bought Clash of the Titans in fact) Amanda was aghast that I would waste our money in such a way. Why, she wanted to know, did I keep buying movies I knew were going to be bad?

The fact of it is that this movie isn’t all bad. Oh, it can’t hold a candle to the writing and charm of the game it takes its name from, but it’s a passable if somewhat over long summer action flick. It has some fun fight scenes, a little wire work, and some acrobatics which, although they do not really capture the flow of action in the game, look kind of cool I suppose. I’d say it has two main flaws. For one there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He makes a strange sort of action hero. He has the physique (he must have done a whole lot of push ups) but he doesn’t have the charm. Somebody made an effort to make him look like the Prince in the second PoP game. The one with the mopey, angsty, Trent Reznor inspired hero. And although there are quips for him to deliver in the movie they never seem to work. I would posit that the problem is that at heart Jake is a ham. He’d be more at home in some of the campier comedy inspired episodes of the Highlander TV series laughing it up with Adrian Paul. When he’s called upon to bring some intensity he just comes up short.

My other problem with the movie would be that it takes so long to get moving. It’s about forty minutes before the prince first uses the dagger of time to rewind. There’s a long preamble that introduces the slightly confusing royal family with the king, his evil brother (don’t deny that you knew from the very first time Ben Kingsley appeared on screen that he was evil) the king’s two biological sons and his adopted street urchin son Dastan (our hero ladies and gentlemen.) Then there’s an extremely long siege on a peaceful neighboring town where Dastan gets the dagger. And back to the capital of Persia (wherever that is in the confusing alterna-universe of this movie) where the king is assassinated and Dastan framed for it. All of that before we get any sands of time at all. I think that one thing this movie very much needed was a ruthless and creative editor. If your movie is about the manipulation of time then perhaps it should not be so ploddingly linear – and perhaps you should set a better pace from the outset.

I won’t say that I expected more from this movie. It delivered pretty much exactly what I saw in that preview in the movie theater. In the end though it doesn’t have a creative moment in the entire film (you know what would have been a cool and unexpected twist? If Ben Kingsley had turned out NOT to be the bad guy!) It borrows not just from the game but from the Disney Aladdin and the Indiana Jones movies. It is about half an hour longer than it needs to be. After watching the whole thing tonight I wanted to hold the ‘L’ button and re-do it. I leave you with another quote from the classic game this was based on: “Wait. That’s not how the story goes.”

February 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

House of Flying Daggers

December 8, 2010

House of Flying Daggers

Crouching Tiger led to this. The audacity of an American film-maker to make the iconic big budget Chinese wire-fu movie! It was a call to arms that China as a nation could not ignore. And so they called upon Zang Yimou, himself a national treasure, to reclaim wire-fu as a treasured Chinese art form. This movie, along with the much more blatantly political Hero which came before it, represent the absolute pinnacle of period kung fu as pure art. (At least that is my interpretation of events.)

The story here is simultaneously starkly simple and convoluted. It is more a character study than an action movie – the action drives the characters as they are manipulated by the complex opposing forces that surround them. At the heart of the film are two people: the blind dancer Mei who is an agent of the rebel group known as the Flying Daggers and the dashing government agent Jin who is trying to infiltrate the Flying Daggers by getting into her good graces. Both of them have their loyalties tested to the extreme as the movie progresses. They are torn by their dedication to the opposing sides of a greater conflict and their ill-advised growing affection for each other.

The movie mostly concentrates on Jin, since it isn’t until quite late in the movie that we learn much about Mei and the many deceptions involved in her role. We know that he is a cocky strong-willed lady’s man who uses his charm and his skill in battle to hunt the members of the Flying Daggers. He rescues Mei from jail after she is arrested by his superior officer Leo (himself a conflicted character with more to him than you might at first expect.) They believe that she is the missing blind daughter of the former leader of the Flying Daggers whom they were instrumental in executing. If Jin can convince her that he is on her side perhaps she will lead him to the new head of the rebels. So Jin takes on the persona of a wandering knave calling himself “The Wind.” But he is anguished when he is forced to kill soldiers on the emperor’s side who are sent to hunt him and Mei down. There are plots within plots as the general in command of the mission to eliminate the Flying Daggers takes over Leo’s operation and Jin finds himself not just a double agent but a hunted man. Leo warns him not to fall for Mei, but Jin finds himself falling anyhow. Then things get complicated.

I always love when a director has the faith in his actors to let important plot points be communicated with little or no dialog, and this is a technique used quite well in this film. Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin and Zhang Ziyi as Mei have several scenes where the internal conflict that drives their characters plays out simply through their facial expressions in tight close-up shots. They both deliver stunning performances which draw the viewer into the movie and make you care about these poor characters.

The fight scenes throughout the movie are, of course, absolutely gorgeous. Each one has a different tone and setting from the thrilling battle between Mei and four riders with pikes to the silent, mystical and almost peaceful ambush in the bamboo forest. The choreography and editing are fluid and graceful. The blend of classic wire work and modern CGI special effects is flawless and mesmerizing. Indeed it’s not just the fight scenes – the entire movie is a feast for the eyes. Yimou uses a rich saturated color palette and fills every frame with astonishing beauty. The many gorgeous locations alone are worth watching the movie.

I’m not too certain about the politics of this movie. After watching Hero I was ready for a strong message about the power of the people or faith in the unified government, but this movie is much harder to pin down. Certainly the emperor’s forces are faceless bad-guys. We never even see the general who pulls their strings – we only see the many troops sent to hunt Mei and Jin. And I kind of figured that the Robin Hood like rebels that are the House of Flying Daggers would resonate as a strong populist movement in China, but when we finally meet them they are as manipulative and heartless as the emperor’s agents if not more so. Ultimately, as I said before, the movie is about these characters and the conflict between their beliefs and their feelings. The final climactic battle between the Daggers and the emperor’s assassins is only alluded to, and the climax of the movie is much more personal. They even say themselves that they know they are only pawns in a greater game – nobody cares if they live or die. Except perhaps us, the viewers.

This movie steadfastly refuses to fall into simple categorization. It is art, and needs to be viewed as such. I think what you get out of the movie is deeply personal, since it is so reluctant to provide easy answers. All I know is that it’s astonishingly, heartrendingly beautiful. A major accomplishment, and, yes, I think a better movie than Crouching Tiger.

December 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 274 – Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – November 29th, 2010

Last night I mentioned hoping that this movie wouldn’t be bogged down by the issues the others had, flipping back and forth between backstory and present day. Truth be told, I was rather looking forward to this. I love backstory. But I was also wary of it, because well, a lot of the backstory was already told in the other movies and that makes for some trouble with maintaining tension and continuity. So, mixed feelings firmly in mind, on we went with the last of the Underworld movies. So far. Given the description of the possible fourth movie on Wikipedia, I’m nervous about going back to sequels after this.

I really rather wish I’d watched this first. I mean, my major issues with the other two had to do with integrating the backstory and worldbuilding into the main plots. I love backstory, but it ended up feeling like as interesting as it was, and as much as it added to the atmosphere, it ended up competing with the rest of what was going on. If this had come before, or maybe in between, I think then some of the more exhaustive backstory stuff could have been dealt with cleaner.

In terms of mood, this movie does set a nice stage. A nice blue stage. Seriously, this whole movie is in black and shades of grey and blue. Now, I happen to like blue, and it does make the red blood stand out well, but while I know the other movies were similar in color scheme, I really noticed it this time. Really, it’s clearly an intentional choice. On top of the whole blood thing the blue tone to all the visuals definitely makes it clear that the bulk of the movie takes place at night as well as making the vampires look all pale and inhuman. Of course, it also makes the werewolves look inhuman. And the humans look inhuman. So maybe something should have been done about that. But overall I like it.

With the mood and atmosphere set by the blue and black visuals of a looming castle and lots of sweaty werewolves and pristine vampires, we can move right into the story. And I do have to say that I liked the story. I knew damn well what was going to go down by the end, having seen it in a flashback in the first movie, but I did enjoy seeing the specifics of how it all played out and got to that point. According to the trivia on IMDB the first movie was originally pitched as a “Romeo and Juliet” type story, but to be honest I think this one is far closer. It’s even got the inevitable doom of the couple built in. We know that Lucien and Sonja, both second generation and born into their respective species (as opposed to created like most of the others), aren’t going to get a happy ending. So really the point of watching this is to watch for how Lucien got to the point he was at in the first movie. What, precisely, were the events that led him to make a deal with Kraven? How did he know Tanis and get him on his side too? And where did Raze come from?

And oh, oh all those bits are shown. This is truly Lucien’s story here. Lucien’s and Viktor’s. Sonja’s as well, obviously, but if you’ve seen the other movies you know she’s destined to go up in smoke by the end. So as backstory goes, it’s all for Lucien and Viktor and their eventual rivalry in the first movie. I very much liked how this movie took Lucien’s obsession with combining the vampire and werewolf bloodlines and gave it a nice solid background. It was something Sonja wanted, something she thought would bring about a new day for both species, and so Michael in the first movie is very much the child Lucien and Sonja never got to have. It’s not presented in a sledgehammery way, but firmly enough that I can see the thread of it and I like that. And I also like that Viktor is so very ruthless, but also crushed in his own broken and sick way when Sonja dies. Yes, he’s still a vicious dude who put his own daughter to death, but he cared in his own way. It could easily have played awkwardly, but Bill Nighy did a great job with Viktor. He chews the scenery, but also knows how to give his character an actual arc underneath all the chewing.

I think what pleased me most here was getting to really see the development of Lucien as a character, because he’s a villain for a good chunk of the first movie and here he’s the hero. It’s a solid plot about the cruelty of the vampires and how they created the lycans and abused them until the lycans rose up against them. Ignoring what happened later on after this movie ends, there’s a sort of triumph there. It balances the other movies nicely, really. But in addition to all that? There’s backstory for two of my favorite secondary characters in the other movies.

Now, Raze is one of the coolest lycans ever. Just listen to his voice! Not to mention that he’s played by one of the guys who created the characters for the original story. Kevin Grevioux has a fantastic presence, and in the first movie I loved him and wanted way more of him than I got. It’s great to see him here and see how he meets Lucian and ends up following him. He doesn’t want to be a lycan, sees it as a curse, and is more than happy to go up against the vampires who’ve destroyed so much. So yes, more Raze equals awesome. And then this movie gives me my other favorite minor character: Tanis. He’s clearly morally bankrupt in the second movie, but also has a sort of dedication to history that I love. He’s a self-serving archivist. I love him. He’s got a much expanded role in the backstory here, scheming for a spot on the vampire council, protecting his own interests over all else except the records he keeps. He seems to always be playing whatever side will help him come out best, but then there’s a great scene where all the vampires are gearing up for war and what is he doing? Packing up scrolls and books. And eventually, in between this movie and the first? He pissed off Viktor by telling the truth about him. Fascinating character. I love morally grey characters and well, librarian. Played by an actor I like. Right.

I think my only real complaint about this movie is a somewhat odd one for me. There’s plenty of action here, and lots of scheming and plotting and revolution and rebellion and the vampires are vicious and the werewolves/lycans are brutal and I love all that. But if the backstory is supposed to be about this doomed couple of Lucian and Sonja? There’s just not enough of them. They do have a number of scenes together, but it all picks up with them already in love. It felt a bit abrupt for me. But then it played out fine. It rang true enough when the end came. Enough so that I don’t mind a bit of revision to the original flashbacks. After all, this is an expanded version of all that, so they could go bigger and more expansive. Toss in some sword fighting and a bigger castle, better wolf transformations. And I’m all for all of those.

November 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

November 29, 2010

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

I have not seen this movie prior to today. I have to admit, not having seen it yet, that I have grave misgivings. Can you take the (admittedly very cool) medieval prologue from yesterday’s movie and expand it into an entire film of its own? I’m not sure what to make of an Underworld movie set entirely in the dark ages. Can it be as cool if it involves all armor and no rubber bodysuits? All crossbows and no swords? Can it be an Underworld movie without Kate Beckinsale?

The other issue is that this movie doesn’t really have anything new to add to the Underworld mythos. If you’ve seen the first movie then you know from the beginning how this one has to end. I suppose it works on a sort of Greek tragedy level – knowing the inevitable outcome of the story helps to build the tension. But it’s a little depressing knowing in advance how the story of Sonja and Lucian must play out.

On the other hand it is fun to see some of the other stories woven into this one. There’s the origin of Raze, for example, which is awesome (because Kevin Grevioux is awesome!) There’s the plotting and scheming of Tannis the chronicle keeper. And of course there’s an awful lot of Bill Nighy as Viktor, which is something I enjoy watching any time.

The fact of the matter is that this is actually a pretty fun hack-and-slash medieval action movie. The vampires are not particularly vampyric, in that they don’t really do anything but lurk around their fortress whipping their slaves and whining about how nobody respects them. They’re like super-strong knights in armor who burst into flame in direct sunlight, but not particularly cool beyond that. But then again, the title of the movie IS Rise of the Lycans, so you know that the werewolves are the real stars. It’s pretty much Braveheart but with an all werewolf cast. And on that level it works marvelously.

There’s rain-drenched sword battles, lots of triple-shot crossbows, giant ballistas, and hordes of immortal wolf-men. There’s the now-familiar wolf transformations from the first two Underworld movies with their sort of almost-stop-motion feel which is so cool. Probably the most impressive accomplishment technically for this movie is that it depicts the warped half-man wolf creatures running a lot and the gait that the animators have created here is probably the coolest run you could have for a human-shaped creature. Too often I have seen stuntmen on all fours attempting to run and it always either looks like a sped-up crawl or a stuntman waving his limbs while dangling from a wire (which is what it usually is.) Here the wolf-men have a very convincing lope that manages to be menacing rather than laughable. Good job Underworld animation team!

It’s also fantastic that for what is essentially a fleshed out flashback and spin-off film the producers managed to get so much of the original cast back. Michael Sheen as Lucian (particularly funny to watch now that Amanda and I have realized that he is David Frost from Frost/Nixon.) Bill Nighy of course, who must really enjoy getting so many paychecks out of this franchise after his character was so definitively killed off in the first movie. (I got the impression many times in this film that his cosmetic contacts were really irritating him, and that he was using that pain to inform his portrayal.) Kevin Grevioux is, of course, completely awesome – and still doesn’t get enough lines. I wish they’d make a Raze movie next – I’d love to watch that. With the sub-woofer turned way up. Oh, yeah. And I know Amanda was delighted to see Steven Mackintosh back as Tannis from the second movie. She loves a good librarian character and cheered during the climactic battle when he was trying to save his archives.

I had fun tonight. This is definitely the lesser of the three Underworld movies in my opinion, but it’s still amusing and it still does just what it sets out to do. It makes me want to play some more Castlevania: Lord of Shadows.

November 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beastmaster

November 22, 2010

The Beastmaster

Another B-movie tonight in honor of Desert Bus. Yesterday’s movie about the son of a hero who was prophesied to destroy an evil priest naturally reminded us of this movie about the son of a king who is prophesied to destroy an evil priest. There’s a strange sort of genre of eighties fantasy adventure. On the big budget side you have the Conan movies, and on the low budget side you have things like yesterday’s Ator movie and the Deathstalker movies. And somewhere in the middle you have things like this movie and Krull with better than average budgets and some recognisable faces. These movies share a lot of common tropes such as evil priests/wizards and big muscle bound heroes who hack and slash their ways through many foes and tend to blend into each other after a while.

This movie is actually a pretty major step above Ator. All the actors speak English for one thing. The make-up is pretty well done. (Particularly the creepy vampire people – who would later appear in Titan A.E.) The fight choreography is less laughable than in the Ator movies. There aren’t really any special effects, but there are some fun pyrotechnics and, as the title would seem to indicate, an awful lot of trained animals doing tricks. I was also somewhat thrown by the fact that the sweeping orchestral score is almost identacle to the Battlestar Galactica theme. I kept expecting to see Cylon fighter craft swooping over the hillside in battle formation.

Our chunky hero and subject of today’s prophesy is Dar – played by Marc Singer in a loin cloth. I will say that I think Miles O’Keefe is slightly better as a chunky hero that Marc Singer. Not that Singer isn’t quite well sculpted here, but he just doesn’t have the joy for this cheese. He’s all blank stares and strangely square white teeth. His foe is the ever versatile Rip Torn with braids and a Gandalf nose. He eventually acquires as an ally in the worldly warrior Seth played by John Amos. You know, I’d have rather seen John Amos as the Beastmaster… he’s a far better actor and generally more fun to have on the screen.

Amanda and I made a number of Macbeth references at the start of the movie. It starts out with some frighteningly hot-bodied crones telling Rip Torn’s Maax that he will be killed by the unborn son of the king. So he sends one of his crones to steal the unborn child (by magically transplanting the child to the womb of a cow) but before she can slay the tyke she is killed by a passing do-gooder who adopts Dar. (Dar was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped, you see.) Dar eventually discovers that he has an unnatural ability to communicate with wild animals. (Thus the Beastmaster – though in reality he’s more of a BeastBuddy – he doesn’t command the beasts so much as work with them.)

There’s a third party in the movie that somewhat muddies the plot but is essential to the climactic end battle. There is this horde of masked warriors who don’t seem to have anything to do with the king or with Maax – they just show up near the start of the movie to slaughter everybody in Dar’s adoptive village (and his dog!) Then they don’t show up again for a couple hours until for some reason they invade the city after what should have been the ending of the movie. This leads to a massive battle scene with a ton of fire and horses and such. (I had to wonder at the time why the Beastmaster never used his animal befriending powers to take over the enemy horses. I suppose he’s just not too bright – which explains quite a lot of the movie.)

I like a good fantasy film, but for some reason they are few and very far between. Maybe it’s just easier to churn out movies that involve scantily clad people swinging swords at each other. This is not a good movie, but it is not a horribly awful movie either. Indeed it was good enough to spawn two sequels and a televison series, so it must have been a success. I am sad to say that we do not own Krull – because it would be my natural inclination to watch that movie next… we’ll just have to watch some other crappy movie tomorrow.

November 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Ator: The Fighting Eagle

November 21, 2010

Ator: The Fighting Eagle

“This exercise is working. I can feel it… here.”

Another painfully awful movie tonight. For the children. As I mentioned yesterday we’re watching some of the worst movies in our collection to show sympathy for the good people playing Desert Bus to raise money for Childsplay. Amanda and I are far more familiar with the sequel to this movie – Ator The Invincible – better known to MST3K fans as “The Cavedwellers.” We bought this – the prequel to one of our favorite MST episodes so because I am a glutton for punishment. I simply cannot resist a good bad movie.

This movie lacks the huge budget ambitions and star power of yesterday’s film. Instead it is a low budget epic fantasy filmed, I believe, in Italy and dubbed into English. More than anything else it feels like a low budget version of Conan the Barbarian. The movie starts out with a lengthy voice over prologue that attempts to set the scene. It is a time of magic and prophesies. In a poorly defined medieval time period there is a land that has been ruled for a thousand years by an evil spider priest. Only one man has ever attempted to defeat him, but the hero Turin was defeated. Still – there is a prophesy that his son will finally put an end to the spider priest. It is that son, Ator, whose adventures we follow today.

Body-builder and general pretty boy Miles O’Keefe plays Ator, a callow youth who knows nothing of his ancestry or destiny. He only knows that he wants to marry his sister Sunya. He is much relieved to discover, after telling his father of his incestuous intentions, that Sunya is not his sister after all. But on his wedding night Dakkar (the spider priest, who according to the titles plays himself) sics his minions on Ator’s village, killing his adoptive parents and kidnapping his sister/wife.

Ator is trained via montage by the mysterious warrior Griba, who wants to defeat Dakkar for reasons of his own, and then the “adventures” begin. Which is to say that he has a few random things happen to him. Most of which seem to have to do with people wanting to have sex with Ator. There’s an amazon tribe, a witch with a magic mirror, a bunch of undead soldiers (who do nothing at all), a madam at a tavern, a bunch of blind sword makers and their glittering charm shield. In spite of all the prophesies the movie is only really bookended by the confrontation with the spider priest with the rest of the movie padded out by encounters that have nothing to do with the movie. In a way I think it might have worked better as a serial or something than as a movie.

We found it impossible to watch this without MiSTing it. Not just because it is a funny low budget movie, but because it was summarised in its entirety in the prologue to the second Ator movie, which we have seen many, many times. Lines like “oh, he’s been gonged” and “he had never killed so large a puppet” just came automatically to our lips.

This movie was not as bewilderingly and possibly inadvertently bas as Battlefield Earth. It is simply an aimless low budget bunch of silliness that sets out to amuse us with its tale of adventure and magic, and pretty much delivers. You can’t expect great cinema from an Italian Conan movie – but if you can accept a lot of badly staged stage swordplay and a giant spider puppet that hardly movies and whose strings you can clearly see, then this movie might meet your needs.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Beowulf

November 17, 2010

Beowulf

I’d like to relate a story regarding this movie. When this came out on DVD I was still working as a manager of a Blockbuster store. While it was still on the new release wall I had a customer who insisted that I should give him his money back because when he rented Beowulf he didn’t realize that it was an animated movie. He claimed that it was false advertising and that there was nothing on the box to indicate that this movie didn’t feature real people. I don’t recall if I acquiesced – I’m inclined to think not because I very rarely ever gave anybody their money back unless there was a legitimate mistake on the part of my staff. I can see, however, why that customer was disillusioned. In still shots the fidelity of the digital creations in this movie do look almost photorealistic. It’s only when you see them in motion that the unreality sets in.

Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that these people look TOO realistic. Our brains are programmed to see a certain kind of movement out of people, and when it’s not there even the tiniest subtleties can cause a glaring disconnect. It’s known as the “uncanny valley” in computer animation circles, and it’s one of those challenges that drives animators crazy. The entire time that you’re watching this movie your brain is screaming at you. “There is something NOT RIGHT about the way these people are moving!” But if you look at things analytically you can’t really tell why. It’s like a light flashing irritatingly in the corner of your vision that you can’t find if you look at it directly.

This is further compounded by the fact that many of the digital automatons on the screen are made to look like the people playing the characters. Hrothgar is unmistakable Anthony Hopkins. Wealthlow, for all that she seems to have been modeled with a permanent scowl on her face, is clearly Robin Wright. Unferth looks a lot like John Malkovich with a silly beard stuck to his face. And Grendel’s mother is a sort of idealized pin-up female form with Angelina Jolie’s head stuck on top of it. (I believe it is in one of the Loading Ready Run podcasts that the lads speculate about what the animators did with that computer model – probably something it’s better not to know.) Anyhow, the uncanny valley yawns wider when it’s not just random faces but those of well known actors that are so slightly wrong in their appearance. A lot of people talk about “doll’s eyes” or say that the characters seem to have a dead stare, but for me it’s something about the stiffness of the mouth that makes me wince.

The other thing that irritates me about this movie is that it lacks the strength of its convictions. I can see what they’re going for in this adaptation. It’s intended to be a primal sort of edgy epic that looks at the savage instincts beneath the civilised masks that we wear. It tries to tie the notion of heroes and demons to urges that are nowadays frowned upon. There’s carousing and wenching and drinking and belching and all of this is what brings out the demon Grendel. Grendel is portrayed as a tortured and malformed horror. (I was delighted to see that Crispin Glover, that fantastic professional weird person, played Grendel.) There’s a whole ton of gruesome bloodletting. Grendel tears a lot of people apart, impales a bunch more, and even sucks the guts out of one guy’s torso. Beowulf shows up on the scene and insists on battling Grendel without the trappings of armor or weapons. And then suddenly the movie turns inadvertently funny. The problem is that although you can have all this gore and such apparently when it comes to full frontal nudity you can’t have that – so for the duration of Beowulf’s epic primal naked battle with Grendel the movie most resembles that bit in Austin Powers where cleverly placed objects obscure his nudity. There was never any way that an experimental and high-concept film like this was going to succeed as a PG-13 action adventure, so they should have bitten the bullet and gone for a full R rating.

There are some parts of the movie I do enjoy. There are very brief moments where the animation totally works and a believable, subtle and emotional performance comes through. (Most notably in a few later scenes of Wiglaf.) I appreciate the bits that attempt to honor the source material. (Particularly Crispin Glover speaking all of his dialog in antiquated Old English – it’s hardly able to be understood, but that’s part of the magic of it.)

To summarise: this movie is a grand experiment. It is a step on the road to a different kind of movie – one created using all the craft of real actors but in the digital era those performances will be stored as motion data rather than static film images. I would not say that it is altogether successful, but it may be a necessary thing. Perhaps the new digital frontier which Robert Zemeckis is championing could not come to be without experiments like this. Will we have fully realized motion-captured digital performances that actually work and don’t feel so artificial as these? Undoubtedly. Indeed they may not even be passive movies – they are more likely to be rendered in real time. In fact – that future is not so very far away at all. I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s going to be like.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 210 – Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke – September 26th, 2010

For some reason, even though I adore fantasy movies and knights and curses and magic and clever thief characters and the like, this was never a staple for me. I’ve seen it through a couple of times and in bits and pieces a few more, but it’s not a go-to fantasy movie for me. Strange, since there’s plenty in it for me to enjoy as well as enough to make fun of that it keeps me grinning. It’s got a plot that’s not a typical quest and an anti-hero and I do like a clever thief and a strong female lead. And it’s all there. It just somehow never got on my regular rotation.

Fantasy movies are often placed in a sort of vague medieval setting and this one is no exception. It’s set in our world, obviously. There are mentions of the Crusades and all. It’s just a version of our world where one can make pacts with the devil to curse one’s enemies. The thing is, while the castles and clothing and general setting say medieval Europe (France, I assume but the specific country is never made super important), the music says 1980s. It says it loudly and clearly with a lot of synth. Somehow, what with this not being something I put in all that often, I’d managed to forget just how ever-present the music is. It was written by Alan Parsons, apparently because the director, Richard Donner, was listening to the Alan Parsons Project while scouting locations and ended up with the locations and music linked in his head. That’s all well and good, but half the time I expected women in leotards to jog in and start doing aerobics. That’s highly distracting, to say the least, especially since without the music the movie is beautifully done to place you in the time period.

It really comes off more as a fairy tale than a high fantasy. There are no elves here, or wizards. What there are instead are a pair of lovers, cursed by a man who wanted the woman for himself and was willing to turn from God to keep them apart. There is a monk who brought about their predicament and knows how to lift the curse. And there is a young thief with nothing to do with curses and lovers and Bishops, until he gets pulled into their story. It feels like something you could read in one of Andrew Lang’s Fairy books. According to IMDB it was marketed as being based on a real medieval legend, even though it’s not, so the feel of it being like a fairy tale wasn’t lost on others. It does mean that the music comes off as all the more odd, but the story itself is told so well.

Our main protagonist isn’t either of the lovers. It’s the thief. Phillipe “Mouse” Gaston, recently escaped from the dungeons of Aquila, meets up with Navarre, one of the lovers. And slowly he learns that Navarre and the hawk he carries with him are not at all what he thought. In the daytime Navarre is a man with a hawk. At night there is no Navarre and there is no hawk. There is a woman named Isabeau and a wolf. See what I mean about it sounding like a fairy tale? The vast majority of the movie is spent with Mouse traveling with Navarre and Isabeau, encountering various dangers and whatnot and getting to know Navarre in the day and Isabeau at night. Since they can’t speak to each other they both want him to act as a sort of go-between. To be honest, I find those parts far more interesting than the various fights and whatnot.

There’s a good deal of action in the movie, of course. It stands to reason, given that we need some dramatic tension and the Bishop who wants to keep them apart has been sending soldiers and all after them. The Captain of the guard gets a little more face time than the rest and there’s a rivalry set up between him and Navarre, since Navarre was the captain once. But then there’s also a hunter the Bishop brings in to hunt the wolf and I think he’s supposed to be a bigger deal than he ends up being. He shows up and then there’s an encounter, and then he’s dead. It seems somewhat perfunctory. A lot of the action is like that. Soldiers show up, Mouse and/or Isabeau is in danger (or Navarre in the case of the hunter), Navarre saves the day, let’s move on. So the focus really is on Mouse and his relationships with Navarre and Isabeau. The action scenes feel like punctuation to me. Which isn’t a problem. They’re not bad scenes, just not given enough time to be interesting beyond the visuals.

I would have to say that my biggest issue – aside from the incongruity of the synthy music – is in the end and how Navarre treats Isabeau when she’s in hawk form. I don’t blame him in the least for the jesses and hood. It’s plainly stated early on that the wolf and the hawk aren’t really aware of their human lives. They don’t know they’re human. They don’t remember what they’re told. While the wolf comes to Isabeau and the hawk to Navarre, and they know each other on some level, they’re not truly aware. Fine. But I think Navarre has either gotten too used to being the hawk’s owner, or it’s the time period slinking in. Because he tells Father Imperius to kill her in her hawk form if he fails to deal with the Bishop. Isabeau gets no say in the matter. Maybe she’d agree, not wanting to live on only human at night, without her beloved even parted as they are. But no. It’s not “Wait until nightfall and tell Isabeau and let her choose.” It’s “Kill her, make it fast.” Men.

Aside from that, it’s a lovely movie full of some beautiful scenery and a story that has elements from some classics, but is very much its own thing. There are some great performances from the leads as well. Even though I’ve got a very different role as my default vision of Rutger Hauer he does an excellent job as Navarre, who’s kind of a jackass but still an honorable man who truly loves Isabeau and would do anything for her. Michelle Pfeiffer gets some great moments in as Isabeau, who’s a rather tragic figure but also very strong, which I like. She’s not some wispy damsel, even if she doesn’t get a truly equal partnership in the whole thing. I managed to ignore Matthew Broderick’s amazing disappearing accent enough to enjoy his performance as Mouse, and he does do a great job with the awkward and bizarre position Mouse has landed himself in. Also worth noting is Leo McKern as Father Imperius. I love Leo McKern, who will always be a mish-mash of Rumpole of the Bailey and Number 2 for me, making his turn as a drunken monk tormented by one fateful action a nicely different vision of him, even if his laugh is instantly identifiable. He’s sort of like Brian Blessed that way.

This may not be one of my very favorite movies I’ll put in for comfort viewing, and the music may not have aged well. The special effects aren’t fantastic, but the movie doesn’t depend on them for more than a single scene so I don’t mind that. Really, the faults are all far outweighed by the merits. I’ll have to put it in more often, because it really is fun to watch.

September 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment