Sunday, February 26, 2017

Snowpiercer (2013)

I think I am like most people and found out about this movie via Netflix.  Keep in mind that I am quite familiar with direct-to-video movies, enjoying many films in the 1980s and 1990s that would have been drive-in fare if that was a thing that still existed outside of a novelty at that time.  So, of course, I thought that is what Snowpiercer must be. 

As luck would have it, by the time I had found out more about it, Netflix had stopped carrying it, at least on the streaming option. But I kept hearing more and more about it, much like I had other movies I had skipped over in the past for one reason or another.

It is 2031, 17 years after the governments of the world attempted to solve global warming by spraying a chemical in the atmosphere, the world remains in a perpetual state of deep freeze due to the experiment.  Not just a normal ice age, but temperatures under which people freeze solid in a matter of minutes.

The remainder of humanity lives packed into the Snowpiercer, a train originally designed for luxury travel around the world and happens to be a self-contained environment.  Supposedly the builder, Wilford (Ed Harris), had guessed what would happen and invited anyone who could afford a ticket to board the train.  A number of people, in a desperate attempt to save themselves, stowed away and became an oppressed lower class forever isolated in the rear of the train.

As the 18th year approaches, a revolutionary named Curtis (Chris Evans), spurred on by his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), prepares the passengers in the rear to revolt against Wilford and his forces.  The revolution gains momentum when Wilford's assistant Claude (Emma Levie) takes the children of Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner), the latter who is brutally punished by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) when he throws his shoe at Claude in protest.  Encouraged by communications from further up the train and the fact that it appears that Wilford's soldiers no longer have bullets for their guns, Curtis and his second Edgar (Jamie Bell) rise up at the next headcount and head for the prison section to free an addict named Kang-ho Song (Namgoon Minsoo), who brings along his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko), who appears to have superhuman hearing abilities.  With the promise of his drugs, Kang-ho agrees to open the gates between each of the cars so the revolutionaries can progress.

They manage to do so easily for a time, but soon run into resistance in the form of Mason's special guard of axe-wielding soldiers.  Still, Curtis and his followers seem to gain the upper hand, until the train enters a long tunnel.  The soldiers, equipped with night-vision equipment, almost turn them back, but their defeat leads to the capture of Mason, who agrees to take them further up front, which leads to a confrontation with a schoolteacher (Alison Pill) whose main job seems to be indoctrinating the students to Wilford's propaganda and maintaining the class division.  She also manages to provide a distraction for a surprise attack, leading to heavy casualties among the revolutionaries. 

Curtis, along with Kang-ho and Yona still manage to push forward, glimpsing how the rest of the passengers have spent the years since the world's end as well as learning some hard truths about Wilford's intentions.  While Kang-ho and Yona have their own plans revolving around escaping the train, as it appears that the earth may be warming once again, Curtis learns that most of what he believed in his life was not what he thought, and he is given some hard choices for his future.

Snowpiercer is Joon-ho Bong's first English-language film and, surprisingly, I find that I have never seen any of his Korean works.  I can say that one advantage this movie has is that it doesn't really make any compromises for an international audience.  It may not be as strangely complex as most Asian sci-fi and horror films tend to be, but that is both to its advantage and due to the fact of it being based on a French graphic novel. He does use the claustrophobic environment to his advantage, and the fight scenes and choreography would be right at home in an Asian film.  It is good that they are not filmed in a more Hollywood manner.

While both Hurt and Harris are great in their roles, both characters are plot devices to control the development of Curtis's story.  Chris Evans proves that he is not a one-note actor, falling perfectly into the role of both a man who wants to do something to help his friends but that is reluctant to take on the mantle of leadership.  The other standout performance is Tilda Swinton.  While Wilford seems to be reclusive and have little grip that what he is doing is evil (he seems to actually believe that what he is doing is best for the survival of humanity), Mason revels in trappings of power and materialism, with a bit of misplaced religious zealotry thrown in for good measure. 

While Snowpiercer has received largely positive reception among fans and critics, I still have a few problems.  Surprisingly, it's not the idea of a train serving as a self-contained environment, since it seems that part of the plot was quite well conceived, including a specific plot point that is the result of such an enclosed and hard-to-maintain ecosystem.  Part of the problem is that a good portion of the movie is quite original, but by the end it turns out to have some of the same plot twists as the Matrix trilogy. 

My other problem reveals a bit of a spoiler.  A major point in the movie is that all life on the surface was destroyed due to the major temperature drop.  So, how did some animals, even if they are adapted to an arctic climate, survive through the period when supposedly nothing could?  I understand the message of life persisting, but that usually has to do with smaller flora and fauna which can become adapted to microenvironments, or even extremophiles or microbial life.  The life shown to be existing would need more than that to maintain its survival, even if it did (as I would assume happened) find pockets where temperatures were at survivable levels.  It is also not the first thing I would want to see if I was one of the last few human survivors.

So, once again, we have a movie that is quite creative and exciting through most of its run, only to reach a typical ending that feels tacked on only to make things look not so bleak.  And this time we can't blame Hollywood, as Joon-ho's fans fought hard to make sure his version got released by the Weinsteins rather than one of their famously butchered ones.  According to him, though, there are other survivors, but just weren't shown due to budget reasons.  And, in the novels, there is another train involved as well, so maybe the passengers won't trade the belly of one beast for another after all.

Snowpiercer (2013)
Time: 126 minutes
Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris
Director: Joon-ho Bong

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Doctor Strange (2016)

I am constantly surprised at how many movies and television shows that Marvel Studios and Disney keeps churning out.  I figured once they got the Avengers together they would just hit us with a series of those movies until the cash cow ran dry.  Instead, it seems that they are content to make standalone movies for almost every character they can find and, failing that, throw in references everywhere.

That brings us to Doctor Strange.  Another of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's creations, he debuted in 1963 with a look similar to that of horror great Vincent Price.  Instead of getting his powers from radiation, mutation or scientific advancements, Dr. Stephen Strange learns how to control magic (as well as a healthy helping of martial arts) after an accident ends his career as a neurosurgeon.  He then goes on to use that magic to defeat the usual menagerie of bad guys.

Despite starring in several of his own comic books, the figure is marginal at best, usually appearing to aid some of the more famous characters.  Because of this the only other live-action version of Strange was a 1978 television movie which altered quite a bit of the story.

This time around Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is once again a talented, but egotistical, neurosurgeon who lords his skills over his colleagues as well as his on-and-off-again lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).  He typically rejects patients that he thinks he can't save in order to keep his reputation intact.  One night, while speeding along a mountain road and looking at information on his phone, he crashes his vehicle and barely survives.  When he does wake up he finds out that he has severe nerve damage in his hands and can no longer follow his chosen career.

Depressed and low on funds, Strange bounces from one idea to another without success, until he hears of a man who had a severe spinal cord injury that he himself had passed on because he thought the situation was hopeless.  Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) somehow learned to walk again.  Strange finds Pangborn and learns that, when all medical hope was lost, Pangborn opted for the spiritual.  After years of searching he found a place in Nepal called Kamar-Taj that taught him how to heal himself.

Strange spends his remaining money to go to Nepal and find Kamar-Taj.  While in Kathmandu he is assaulted by robbers, but rescued by Master Mordo (Chiwetal Ejiofor), who takes him to see the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).  Initially he is rejected due to his ego and the similarity of his situation to a prior student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has since turned against the Ancient One and stolen pages form a book that tell how one may gain immortality.  Reluctantly, strange is ultimately let in.

After difficult training in which Strange largely fails before being put in a life and death situation, it is revealed to him that the order he has joined exists to maintain three sanctums around the globe: London, New York and Hong Kong.  With them standing the earth is protected from incursion from the Dark Dimension, where a being called Dormammu (Cumberbatch) dwells with the intent of bringing all the worlds of the multiverse into his realm, which lies outside of time itself.  It is this power that Kaecilius and his followers intend to tap into, with the goal of not only immortality for themselves, but for humanity in general, by destroying the sanctums and allowing Dormammu to fulfill his goal .

Through trial and error Strange finds that he is able to manipulate a relic called the Eye of Agamotto, which allows him to control time.  He also discovers the Cloak of Levitation, which not only allows him to do such but also guides him in the correct actions to take while battling Kaecilius, who easily destroys the London sanctum and twice attacks New York, leaving in weakened.  With his focus set on Hong Kong, and the order of sorcerers much diminished, it is up to the surviving few to defend the earth from both Kaecilius and Dormammu.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as can be expected, fits well in the role, even if he is forced to do an American accent.  Tilda Swinton brings both ruthlessness and heart to the Ancient One, as is required.  Chiwetal Ejiofor's Mordo is presented as both a sidekick to Strange and the Ancient One, but eventually becomes one of the more complex characters.  Meanwhile, Bendict Wong as Wong, Kamar-Taj's librarian, is largely there to play a foil to many of Strange's more annoying aspects.  Rachel McAdams, though she is supposed to be a doctor, is largely there to be pretty and bouncy.

Sadly, Mads Mikkelsen is treated the same way most of the Marvel villains have been treated, with little backstory or motivation.  He gets a little more than some of his predecessors, but the role could have gone to a lesser actor.  Mikkelsen is way too talented to play a one-dimension character.

What caught the eye most in the trailers for Doctor Strange was the kaleidoscopic images of worlds twisting among themselves during some of the fight scenes.  Though there is some surface relation to Inception, this is truly something entirely different.  This is also one of the places where the movie shines.  It uses CGI to great effect to show fights among what looks like an M.C. Escher painting.  There are spirit fights outside the body, astral trips through the multiverse and many other things that occur that, for once, make sense of a heavy use of computer animation. 

Too bad that, good performances and stunning visuals aside, this is still the same old origin story that we have seen over and over again for awhile now.  Egotistical or slightly broken person falls to their lowest, discovers that the world has more to offer and, despite not yet having a grip on everything they can do, defeats some bad guy intent on destroying the world.  It's a good movie, as are many of the other Marvel films, but it is beginning to remind me why at some point in my early teens I decided that I was getting too old for comic books.

Doctor Strange (2016)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen
Director: Scott Derrickson

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Invasion (2007)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers seems to have survived the test of time.  Jack Finney's original novel, simply titled The Body Snatchers, remains a creepy classic to this day.  And, while the novel largely worked the paranoia of people becoming slaves to routine and losing touch with their humanity, the resulting 1950s sci-fi classic used the aliens as a stand-in for America's fear of communist infiltrators during the Cold War.

The movie got a big-budget remake in 1978 and, while it didn't have the same impact as the original, it still has that nice bit of '70s nastiness that makes it enjoyable.  Too bad Abel Ferrara's 1993 version fell flat.

Thinking it was time to bring it back again, David Kajganich was hired to write a script and up and coming German director Oliver Hirschbiegel was set to direct.  Nicole Kidman got the lead, and a then not-so-well-known British actor named Daniel Craig got the supporting role.  The ideas that Kajganich came up with were different enough that the whole "body snatcher" idea was dropped.

A NASA space shuttle called Patriot crashes on an unscheduled re-entry, scattering pieces across the American heartland.  Examination of the pieces shows traces of an extraterrestrial virus that somehow attached itself to the ship and survived not only space, but re-entry through the atmosphere.  Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam), an investigator for the Center for Disease Control, comes in contact with the virus, as do various others.

Soon, there are rumors of a flu going around, and people are lining up to get vaccines.  What psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Kidman) notices is that people are acting strangely.  Patients are reporting that their spouses are not their spouses, while authority figures seem to be rounding up civilians.  She soon has the same reservations about Tucker, who is her ex, and begins to fear the worst as their son Oliver (Jackson Bond) is staying with him for the weekend.

Along with her best friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig) and his colleague Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright), they began to get more information on the virus, as well as discovering that some people may be immune.  It turns out that they are infected by liquids or bodily fluid contact, and the virus rearranges their DNA as they sleep, changing people into an emotionless collective.

Due to her resistance, Bennell becomes a target, as does her son and everyone else that is immune.  Her only hope is to make it to the safety of Fort Dietrich, where experiments on a vaccine are taking place.

The Invasion is still the same old body snatchers movie as before, even using some of the same names in places.  The only difference is that it is a virus instead of seed pods.  I am glad that they still gave Jack Finney credit for the novel at the end, because the differences are largely superficial.  While character development, or characters worth caring about, are largely non-existent, it does manage to convey some of the creepier moments of the 1978 version.

I also give it credit for using many practical effects and stunts.  In contrast, when CGI is used, it looks like they hired someone to throw it together over a weekend.  I know the movie is a decade old, but there was decent CGI back then.  This isn't it.  The shuttle crash is horribly filmed, as are any scenes involving the helicopter in the air.  It makes one wonder where the 80 million dollars it cost to make this movie went, when there have been better productions for a quarter of that amount.

While about a quarter of the budget went to pay Kidman's salary (despite her phoned-in performance), another 10 million went to reshoot everything the studio didn't like, bringing in the Wachowskis and a second director.  Thus, we leave what little tension there was in the movie behind as we rush toward a tacked-on Hollywood style happy ending. 

I don't hate this version, but that doesn't really mean much.  If it was campy or outrageously bad then there would be at least something to enjoy.  Instead, it is a rather blah frankenfilm that I can't even say would have been better if the studio had left it alone.  The editing, the flashbacks and flashforwards, and the general direction make me wonder why Hirschbiegel was such a prize choice to begin with.  In the end, The Invasion was a colossal waste of time and money for everyone. 

The Invasion (2007)
Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Princess Bride (1987)

Geeks have a habit of quoting movies constantly.  I'm not just talking about movie nerds, but the geek community in general.  Not things like "Hasta la vista, baby," or "Make my day," but rather lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail and such.  The Princess Bride happens to be one of those movies.

From people going around claiming to be Inigo Montoya to memes criticizing the misuse of the English language, this modest movie has become a part of pop culture over the last 30 years.  It goes from everything from me remembering an internet user from the early 1990s going by "Dread Pirate Roberts" to the operator of the Silk Road website using the same handle.  Whether William Goldman and Rob Reiner intended it, the film's influence equals, and often exceeds, the intended blockbusters of the 1980s.

As a young boy (Fred Savage) stays home sick in bed, his grandfather (Peter Falk) shows up to give him a bit of cheer.  Grandfather has brought along a special book that his father read to him when he was sick, and that he also read to his own son.  At first his grandson is reluctant, but becomes a bit more interested when he is reassured that there is a fair amount of action and adventure.

Buttercup (Robin Wright) is a farm girl who treats their hired hand Westley (Cary Elwes) with disdain for years, until she finally realizes that he loves her and, deep down, she loves him.  He sets off to sea to earn his fortune so he can provide for her, but is reported murdered at sea by the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Buttercup vows never to love again, even when five years later she finds herself the betrothed of Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), heir to the throne of the kingdom of Florin. 

While out on one of her rides in the country, she finds herself kidnapped by a gang consisting of the Sicilian Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his compatriots, the giant Fezzik (André the Giant) and the Spaniard Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin).  Their plot is to murder Buttercup and frame the abduction on the rival country of Guilder in order to start a war with Florin. However, they find themselves pursued by a man who turns out to be the Dread Pirate Roberts. 

As Roberts bests the members of the group, it is revealed that Montoya is earning money to continue the search for a six-fingered man who murdered his father, Fezzik is just interested in belonging and Vizzini isn't as clever as he thinks.  It is also revealed that Roberts is really Westley in disguise, who is understandably upset that Buttercup has agreed to marry Humperdinck.  After discovering the truth, Buttercup is more than happy to get out of the marriage, and the two attempt to flee from Humperdinck's hunting party.  Inevitably, they are caught, and Buttercup agrees to go through with the marriage in order to spare Westley's life.

Humperdinck has no intention of keeping his end of the deal, and turns Westley over to his henchman Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), who just happens to have six fingers on his right hand.  Instead of being returned to his ship, Westley is thrown into the Pit of Despair for Rugen to torture.  Meanwhile, Fezzik discovers that Rugen is the man whom Montoya has been looking for, and reunites with the Spaniard, forcing him to sober up so they can rescue Westley and attack the castle and, in due course, save Buttercup from being murdered on her wedding night.

There are a number of threads throughout this film, the main and most apparent being the deconstruction of both the typical fairy tale story as well as fantasy films. William Goldman, both in his book and in the screenplay, uses all the usual tropes (monsters, villainous royalty, true love) and idealized them to a point of ridiculousness.  Sometimes this is unintentional, as the Rodents of Unusual Size are obviously guys dressed up in giant rat suits.  Other times, such as Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin playing their parts largely straight while all sorts of hijinks go on around them, it is simply brilliant. 

It is also quite touching in places.  In the wraparound story it is implied that the boy's father is not in the picture because he has died at some point and, though it was definitely not at the hands of an evil count, Inigo Montoya provides the image of a hero overcoming his own failings as well as the pain of growing up without a father figure.  It also deals with the anger and, ultimately, what to do when that part of your life no longer defines who you are. 

This was a breakout role for Patinkin, and he still considers it his favorite role, even though he has had quite an eclectic career.  Fred Savage managed to go from this to the fondly remembered television show The Wonder Years, while it is nice seeing Peter Falk do something other than Columbo.  His screentime is short, but it I think this is his second-best performance, next to just playing himself as an angel in Wings of Desire.

Cary Elwes channels his inner Errol Flynn throughout, learning to fence (along with Patinkin) in order to do one of the best sword fights in film history.  He went on to become a major star in the 1990s largely due to the cult following that developed around this film.  And let's not forget the character of Fezzik; thank goodness Arnold Schwarzenneger didn't end up in the part.  André the Giant, though already experiencing a number of health problems that would plague him throughout the rest of his years, brings a unique life to the movie.  It would not have been the same movie without him.

As for the villains, they are one-dimensional, but purposely so.  Both Humperdinck and Rugen are plot devices, much the same way that Buttercup is, although Christopher Guest invests the latter with a healthy dose of cold cruelty.  The most memorable bad guy in the whole thing is Vizzini, and Shawn Wallace is memorable in his short role, especially when contrasted with André. 

Also, a special mention has to be made about the cameo of Billy Crystal and Carol Kane, even if the scene seems to have been imported wholesale from a Mel Brooks film.

I will admit that it took me a number of years to grow into liking it as much as I do.  It is one of those films that you see at different stages in your life, and it means something more every time you see it.  Personally, I feel sorry for those who don't get at least something from this, or approach it as a simple comedy film.  The Princess Bride is a great example of how a movie can grow over the years no matter the original intentions.

The Princess Bride (1987)
Time: 98 minutes
Starring: Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, André the Giant, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest
Director: Rob Reiner

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Last Dragon (1985)

When I mentioned that I would be watching The Last Dragon, my wife immediately mention Debarge's "Rhythm of the Night".  I was surprised that she was aware of this film, since, although we both grew up in the '80s, I had never heard of it.  Sure, "Rhythm of the Night" I have heard over and over again, and it was one of those ubiquitous songs of 1985.  I just never knew it came from this movie. 

She was under the impression that it stars El Debarge which, thankfully, it does not.  There is a brief segment of the music video being played, but that's about it.  It is, however, as '80s as you would expect a movie with that song to be.  It is also still quite entertaining.

Leroy Green (Taimak) is a young man obsessed with martial arts.  While training with his master (Thomas Ikeda), he manages to show that he is ready for the final level, known as The Glow, in which his spirit guides his body motions.  Since he has reached this step, Leroy is told that his master can no longer train him.  Leroy, however, is insistent that he still doesn't know how to obtain that final level, and still needs training, so his master gives him an amulet that he says belonged to Bruce Lee, and sends him off to find Master Sum Dum Goy, who is rumored to be the wisest man in the universe.

While enjoying a showing of Enter the Dragon, the showing is suddenly interrupted by local gang leader Sho'Nuff (Julius Carry), who has styled himself the Shogun of Harlem.  When a boy in the audience says that Leroy can stop him, Sho'Nuff calls him out.  However, Leroy decides to leave rather than confront him, enraging Sho'Nuff to the point that the kid becomes an obsession.

Meanwhile, a local mafia hood named Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney) tries to get local VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) to play a video he produced of his girlfriend Angela (Faith Prince) on her show.  She refuses, so Eddie sends a number of his hoods to kidnap her.  Fortunately, Leroy happens to passing by and rescues Laura, but loses his amulet in the process.  Unfortunately, in his innocence about anything not related to his training, he doesn't know who she is.  His little brother Richie (Leo O'Brien), though, happens to be obsessed with her and often sneaks into her show in an attempt to win her heart, despite being about 12 years old.  Richie is reluctant, but finally relents and agrees to introduce him to her.  Unfortunately, he arrives too late to save her from another kidnap attempt.

Despite threats to her life, Laura still refuses to play the video.  Luckily, Leroy has tracked her to Eddie's hideout, and manages to break in and rescue her and, returning to her apartment, retrieves his amulet.  Even with it, though, he finds it near impossible to gain entrance to see Sum Dum Goy, who seems to be holed up in a fortune cookie factory.  To further complicate matters, Sho'Nuff and his gang up the ante, attacking Leroy's dojo and and the pizza parlor owned by his family, causing Richie to lose faith in his brother due to the lack of retaliation.  The lack of faith also effects Leroy, who doubts his ability to protect Laura, who is visibly falling for him.

He has also become Arkadian's obsession, as the mobster hires all manner of criminals and allies with Sho'Nuff to force a final confrontation with Leroy, who must now discover the secret of The Glow before it is too late for him and everyone he loves.

The Last Dragon was produced by Berry Gordy, the owner of Motown Records, and served as a vehicle for pushing music by a number of artists from his label.  Keep in mind the '80s were not the golden age of Motown, despite still maintaining artists like Lionel Richie and Diana Ross.  "Rhythm of the Night" is not a terrible song, and neither is Vanity's "7th Heaven", but most of the songs on here are.  Without the context of the movie they are everything that is bad about '80s music.  Still, because this film is filled with so much of that decade's excess as it is, they help up the camp appeal, especially in the open montage and the final battle.

Taimak is a legitimate martial artist, and there are a couple scenes that show exactly what he can do - catching arrows and, in a stunt that apparently took a couple hours to perfect, karate-chopping one of the arrows in midair.  He was not hired for his acting skills, but he still manages to make the character of Leroy quite memorable.  It is an example of what the movie does right: the hero, and the villains, are so absolutely outrageous that it becomes endearing. 

The best example is Julius Carry, who steals every scene he is in as the sneering, hilariously attired Sho'Nuff.  From his method of speaking (full volume, all the time), to his entourage and even a color-coded van, the Shogun of Harlem could have been plucked from The Warriors and dropped into this film to give it a bit more color than the one-note gangsterisms of Arkadian. Not that Christopher Murney doesn't do a good job of chewing the scenery, but something this garish needed someone other than a balding thug to be Leroy's nemesis.

Vanity, if recent interviews with Taimak are to be believed, was largely cast because Berry Gordy wanted someone with whom Leroy would have real chemistry, and Taimak at the time had a crush on her.  She's largely allowed to do what she does best, which is look pretty and sing, and the role is little more than that of a damsel in distress.  What the role did is allow her to move on from her stalling music career into acting, which she pursued until her conversion to Christianity.

As a kung fu fantasy, which The Last Dragon attempts to be, it largely fails.  Director Michael Schultz really has no idea how film martial arts fights, and more of an idea how to make music videos.  That is the look the movie generally has.  No surprise, as videos still really meant something in 1985, and more and more new movie directors were coming from that field.  As a fun '80s relic that will either make you groan or laugh, with or at it, the movie probably has more going for it now than it did when it came out. 

The Last Dragon (1985)
Time: 109 minutes
Starring: Taimak, Vanity, Julius Carry, Christopher Murney
Director: Michael Schultz

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Often with current Hollywood films one can practically predict the outcome of a movie.  There is so much buildup, from teaser trailers one would swear are made from the screen tests to rumors, leaked photos and opinions that are formed before even one frame of the movie ever shot.  Rogue One was plagued with these: the usual MRA screaming about a woman being a lead to legitimate worries about the film being taken away from director Gareth Edwards for extensive reshoots.

In a way I can't blame the aura that surrounds even films like this one, as the prices to go see films are astronomical, and many of us have less and less time to go see a movie unless we have adequate planning or know who we are seeing it with.  It's why I largely see revival films these days.  It also doesn't help that, when things are going wrong with a movie, predictions are often accurate.  The Ghostbusters reboot died not because a few men were upset about the gender changes, but because word of mouth said that, as expected, it wasn't that good. 

All this is to say that Rogue One, especially for a film in which the ending and consequences of the events have been well-known and picked over for 40 years, defied these low expectations.  Yes, there are problems, which I will get to, but in large part this is as close to a decent Expanded Universe film as we are liable to get, given how much canon was wiped away by the prequels and The Force Awakens.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner in an Imperial labor camp on the planet Wobani.  Years before her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was forcibly brought in to serve the Galactic Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in order to build a super weapon.  Her mother Lyra (Valene Kane) is killed and Imperial forces dispatched to find her.  She escapes, being raised by family friend Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) before leaving the rebel cause and going out on her own.

The defection of Imperial shuttle pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) at Galen Erso's behest to warn the Rebellion about the new weapon leads to his capture by Gerrera, who by this time has broken from the Rebellion and fights with his own group on the planet of Jedha.  The actual Rebellion wants to get a hold of the pilot in order to find Galen's whereabouts and assassinate him before a weapon can be built, and they employ Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to rescue Jyn in order to get an introduction to Gerrera and have him turn over the pilot.

Upon arrival in the Holy City of Jedha, where the Empire is busy stripping khyber crystals from the main temple, Gerrera's followers attack the Imperial forces, leading to an encounter with Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind priest, and his protector Baze (Wen Jiang).  After the supposed defeat of the Imperials and the departure of the hovering Star Destroyer, the group is taken to Gerrera's hideout as prisoners, where Andor meets with the pilot and Jyn discovers that her father's message states that there is a built-in flaw in the construction of the weapon, known as the Death Star, that can lead to its destruction, and that the plans are located in the Imperial Archives on the planet Scarif.

After Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry) orders Krennic to prove the value of the station, the first test leads to the destruction of the Holy City, forcing an immediate escape from Jedha by Andor and his group.  Rook has also revealed the location of Galen Erson as being on the planet Eado, and he is ordered by the Alliance to go there and finish his initial mission.  Meanwhile, Tarkin voices his intentions to take full credit for the success of the Death Star, leading Krennic to petition Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding) to speak to the Emperor on his behalf.  Vader, however, is concerned that the recent defection and other breeches have come from his research facility on Eado.

Krennic and the others arrive on Eado at the same time, with Andor crash-landing and the Alliance, fearing Andor's death, sending a strike squadron to take out the facility.  Afterward, returning to Yavin IV, Andor and Jyn attempt to convince the Alliance to get the plans from Scarif, but fail, as many in the Rebellion believe that they are defeated with the arrival of the new weapon.  A number of fighters decide to join Jyn and Andor for a mission of their own, leading to the Rebellion being forced to act on their behalf and one of the first large-scale engagements leading up to the events of the first Star Wars movie.

If you have seen films like The Dirty Dozen or The Dambusters, you can appreciate much of what Rogue One has to offer.  At its heart it is an historical war film, as the outcome is known, but the story really focuses, true or otherwise, around those who were responsible.  While the original movie set up a sort of comic-book sense of good and bad and the latter part of the first trilogy made individuals like Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine iconic villains, it has largely been up to the Expanded Universe to reveal how despicable the Galactic Empire really was, and why so many people who would typically go about their daily lives unaffected by events happening on other planets would end up caring enough to establish a successful rebellion. 

We also see that the Empire's forces were not stumbling incompetents like one would come to believe from the first few films.  If there is any truth to the film rumor that the main saga events are told at some point by R2-D2, with many of the facts exaggerated, this would be much closer to the truth.  Though suffering heavy casualties during surprise attacks, Imperial reprisals are swift and deadly, and the hopelessness of the Rebellion is palpable.  Almost every one of their successes is a Pyrrhic victory at best prior the destruction of the Death Star.

As with most war movies, there is an ensemble cast, with some members being more memorable than others.  This also means that the main heroes don't do much other than be heroic and get the job done, although Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, especially the latter, do a good job of expressing the sacrifices and losses that have led to this point in their life.  Ben Mendelsohn is great as Krennic, and the part is played with great subtlety in large part, with the times he has to be a sneering villain used reluctantly and because he has to make a point using terror.  He feels like a person who has lost himself in his position, with his human side still fighting and reminding him, many times, that his compromises have truly destroyed him many times over.

The stand-outs on the hero side are Chirrut Imwe and Baze, the former being a blind warrior-priest (and an admitted tribute to Zatoichi) and the latter a warrior with an improvised automatic blaster.  The droid K-2SO ends up with most of the best lines, largely due to his reprogramming causing him to say whatever comes to mind.  Darth Vader is striking as ever, and truly villainous here.  Also, he is not overused, which makes his small bit of screen time effective.

For those who are familiar with all the small details, Rogue One does a good job of filling in many of the plot holes from previous movies, from the exhaust port on the Death Star to C-3PO and R2-D2 being able to somehow move through a rain of blaster fire unharmed.  Gareth Edward's set design also makes the universe the movies take place in much more understandable, combining the amazing technology to be able to fly almost anywhere in the galaxy in a matter of hours through hyperspace with the low-tech environment that most of that galaxy lives in, with computer technology that we put to shame decades ago in our own.

So, let's conclude with the problems this movie has.  Since Peter Cushing's family, and Carrie Fisher herself, both allowed their features to be superimposed over the characters they played in the original, I have no problem with the fact it was done.  They almost get Cushing right, but the features are still too waxy, and Fisher's is way too smooth and almost glows.  It does take one right of the movie, as does the unnecessary  cameo from C-3PO and R2-D2.  There are also many cringeworthy lines, like the whole "rebellions are built on hope" thing.  At least it's nothing like that sand speech from Attack of the Clones.

This movie would be worth seeing even without being in the context of the Star Wars universe, and it does a better job of fleshing out the story than any of the other prequels or even The Force Awakens, which I did enjoy despite many of its flaws.  If early rumors had proven true and this turned out to be a dull, incomprehensible mess of CG and inappropriate cameos, it could have bombed and single-handedly killed Disney's plans for future spinoffs.  I don't know what the future holds for those now inevitable movies, but for better or worse Rogue One has proven that the Star Wars EU formula can work in movie form.  Just be prepared for Disney to milk it to the point that we end up with a VH-1 style documentary on Max Rebo's band at some point.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Time: 133 minutes
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Alan Tudyk, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Gareth Edwards

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Lost Boys (1987)

One thing that can get annoying when watching a movie with me is that I get wrapped up in the technical aspects.  I have wondered if this is because I have spent so much time reading about films rather than sitting back and enjoying them like others, but that's not it.  I truly enjoy watching movies, and the technical aspects that lead to visual story telling are much of my enjoyment.  I have enjoyed a number of movies largely due to decisions the director and cinematographer make, while ignoring obvious plot holes and serious deficiencies in acting.

These are not criticisms of The Lost Boys, mind you.  It's largely to set up why I remembered certain aspects of this film above others.  I saw it around the time it came out, and probably last saw it in the early 1990s.  What always struck me was Joel Schumacher's direction, from the long flying shots over the ocean and heading toward the boardwalk, the set design of the destroyed resort hotel and the creative effects as the vampires die.  It made me a fan of his, at least up to the point that he ruined the first Batman movie series.

Lucy (Dianne Wiest) has just divorced her husband and is moving back in with her father (Barnard Hughes) in the California beach town of Santa Carla.  Her boys Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) are not happy about the move, as their grandfather is rather eccentric, not even owning a television.  With nothing to do, they investigate the town's boardwalk atmosphere.

During a concert, Michael is suddenly entranced by a woman in the audience (Jami Gertz).  He follows her, only to have her take off with her boyfriend David (Kiefer Sutherland) and his miscreant pals.  He later finds out her name is Star, and confronts the boyfriend, only to be welcomed as a possible member in their gang. He follows the group to a resort hotel that was destroyed during the 1909 San Francisco earthquake, which serves as their clubhouse.  Despite Star's warning, he imbibes of what he believes is wine.

The next day he finds himself sleeping late, being sensitive to sunlight and trying to feast on Sam's blood while he babysits him.  Sam himself has had his own encounter, only with amateur vampire hunters Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan Frog (Jamison Newlander), who have provided him with comics explaining vampires and how to get rid of them.  Upon finding out that Michael is turning, he ignores the Frog brothers' initial advice to drive a stake into him and instead sets off on a quest to destroy the head vampire so that Michael will return to normal.

To Michael's credit, he holds back his urges to feed, which would finalize his transformation, although Star admits that she is close to giving in.  Their mother Lucy, unaware of what is happening, becomes increasingly frustrated, thinking that her sons are trying to sabotage her relationship with her new boss Max (Edward Hermann), with whom she is falling in love. 

Sam and the Frogs make things worse when, in an effort to save Michael, they enter the vampires' lair and kill Marco (Alex Winter), sparking the wrath of the surviving three.  With everyone in danger, and Michael's life hanging on the line, they plan a final standoff at the grandfather's house, using all their knowledge about vampires to take them down.

As I said, I remembered much the visual aspect of this movie over the years, as well as the punchline at the end of the film.  I had forgotten how much humor was in the movie, largely carried by Barnard Hughes and Cory Haim, although Feldman and Jamison Newlander do their part of playing the Frog brothers straight and without any type of forced irony you would see in a movie today.

The other thing I failed, thankfully, to remember is the concert scene.  It's an important introduction of Star into the story, but the way its done brings the film briefly to a crashing, unintentionally hilarious halt.  The mulleted, shirtless bodybuilder thrusting with his saxophone was a member of Tina Turner's band at the time, but regardless of whatever real music chops he has, it is a reminder of just how old this movie is now.  I really can't see that it worked back in 1987, which is another reason I am sure I put it out of my mind.

I still enjoy The Lost Boys quite a bit, but it is scenes like that and many more that, despite the fact much of the action and humor still translates, that remind me that it is uncomfortably a product of its time.  It's best viewed as a movie taking place in the time and place it does, as the styles of the time date this harder than most of the vampire movies that came before it.  Even its contemporary Fright Night isn't as brightly '80s as this.

It can be said that without this and Fright Night that vampire movies would have died a sad, withering death, as '80s horror had largely abandoned the more traditional monsters, with the exception being a sort of self-reverential comedy like Monster Squad.  For better or worse, and considering how dated the movie looks, The Lost Boys is as responsible for influencing vampire movies over the last 30 years as Dracula was for influencing them for a half-century prior.

It also contains some of the best vampire stakings ever filmed, all of them better than anything in True Blood, so there is that.

The Lost Boys (1987)
Time: 97 minutes
Starring: Cory Haim, Jason Patric, Cory Feldman, Jami Gertz, Kiefer Sutherland
Director: Joel Schumacher