Monday, July 18, 2016

“Do not compare me to the Jaws mayor!”



Full disclosure: I was deeply skeptical of the new Ghostbusters movie. The controversy, the trailers, the leaked plot rumors (that turned out to be true), the previous failed attempts to get Ghostbusters 3 off the ground where Bill Murray allegedly shredded up a script and mailed it back to Dan Aykroyd. So for at least ten years, the story behind making a new Ghostbusters has been a shitshow, and before that, a pipe dream. The last time I actually wanted to see a new real, live Ghostbusters movie was in high school computer class back in 2001. I went into this skeptical but hopeful that it would surprise me.

So why am I writing a review of a movie I didn't really want to see for 15 years?

I had to know.

Not for the controversy, not because somebody else recommended it. I had to know for myself.

Now I know.

Its a giant piece of dogshit that has nothing to do with who has what kind of chromosomes.

First the setup. Have you ever seen Ghostbusters? It follows the major story beats without taking much time to set things up because this isn't a reboot of Ghostbusters. It's a remake. For the uninitiated: some academics have crazy ideas about researching the paranormal. They get kicked out by the faculty for being crackpots. They go into business for themselves, hire a secretary, investigate paranormal occurrences, have some rocky starts, build technology to catch ghosts, hire a new employee, successfully capture a ghost, attract the attention of a cranky mayor, then find themselves the only thing that can stop a giant supernatural threat that could destroy the city of New York.

All that's missing is the humor, the scares, the buildup of a credible supernatural threat, chemistry between the leads, character development that sticks, humor, any kind of made-up rules for how you could use technology to capture ghosts, any kind of a love interest plot that goes anywhere, quotable lines, and humor.

But it does have poop jokes. And fart jokes. And it steals a gag from Young Frankenstein. Oh, and there's a queef joke. And a pointless cameo from Ozzy Osbourne. And its got Bill Murray in a cameo where he looks dead inside.

And it devolves into a 20 minute action sequence at the end with fight choreography and goofy weapons and shooting the physical manifestation of their logo in the dick.

Our four leads are Erin Gilbert played by Kristen Wiig, who was once big into paranormal investigation but left it behind to become a real scientist and then loses her tenure track when she reunites with her old collaborator/friend and flips out after almost catching a ghost and her supervisor fires her. You would think that would lead to conflict between the two, and in a good script it would. Anyway, aside from playing the straight face of the group, she just fades into the background in most scenes. Except when she accidentally kills a man by releasing the only ghost they've managed to catch and it throws him out a window to prove to him that ghosts exist. See, its funny because its Bill Murray's cameo.

Yeah, that was a spoiler. I'm not sorry.

Next is Abbey Yates, played by Melissa McCarthy, who babbles incessantly. That's it. No realizing she accidentally ruined her friend's academic career, no self-awareness, no character development at all.

Abby has partnered up with Jillian Holtzmann, played by Kate McKinnon. Her only purpose in the plot is to be a mad scientist type who creates anti-ghost weaponry and rattles off techno-jargon. So to fill time, she mugs for the camera because there's nothing else to work with. She's one “Freunlaven” away from turning into Mr. Director from Animaniacs.

And last is Patty Tolan, played by Leslie Jones. She's an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of the weird side of New York and the connections to get a vehicle for the team. She's useful, resourceful, tough, and, remarkably enough, the most believable, fleshed out and likable character in the entire movie and actually has a character arc where she grows from when she's introduced. The movie might even have been better if it was just Patty and Holtz getting into crazy shenanigans. 

They hire Kevin Beckman, played by Chris Hemsworth. Kevin's a narcissistic, airheaded idiot who is miraculously still alive, but he's pretty and Erin has an immediate crush on him, so he's hired. He gets close to some genuine comedy because the character's such an oddball.

There's Rowan North played by Neil Casey, who's the villain. He's creepy and wants to usher in the Fourth Cataclysm (whatever that is) because he's...been bullied all his life? Its stupid and then he kills himself and turns into a ghost that can possess people and then he turns into a terrible CGI version of the Ghostbusters Logo and gets shot in the ghost crotch before being sucked into a portal.

Oh, and there's Andy Garcia as the mayor of New York who knows about ghosts and the supernatural, but helps the Feds clamp down on it to prevent panic. I only mention him because its Andy Garcia and he gets the only line that got a chuckle out of me (which is the quote I used above).

So to sum up what's good about this remake? Leslie Jones and some of the ghost effects. Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson both had good cameos. I had hoped that the controversy surrounding this movie would have at least been a lot of noise about an average movie with a few yuks. The script is terrible, the chemistry between the leads is absent, and there's absolutely zero weight to anything going on in this movie.

Instead, it commits the two biggest sins of comedy: Its boring, and its not funny.


The Star Wars Holiday Special of Ghostbusters.  

Avoid it if you can.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Tell me, do you bleed? You will.



So I recorded something off-the-cuff for this, but it ended up being an incoherent, rambling, overly-long thing that would have been unpleasant for an audience to sit through.

Much like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. ZING!

I'm partially kidding. Batman V Superman is Warner Brothers and DC's attempt at jump-starting a Justice League Movie Universe so that they can chase that Avengers movie cash cow, which is something that's been tried before with Green Lantern (and failed).

Actually, I saw the almost universal panning of the film by the media as a curious thing, especially when a couple people I respect on film/story opinions recommended it. This made me curious enough to see it myself to form my own opinion. Well, I have, and its complicated, and that's why I spent my Sunday night hammering this out.

Short and spoiler-free take? Its a disjointed mess with flashes of goodness but loaded with bloat and inconsistencies that ultimately frustrate the viewer with wasted potential.

From here on out, we're going into spoiler territory.

No, seriously. HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD.


Bats V Supes is a direct sequel to 2013's Man of Steel, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Henry Cavill as Superman. That was a deeply divisive movie that garnered tremendous amounts of criticism, but did well enough to warrant a sequel, and with Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy wrapping up, meant that the time was ripe to open up the DC vaults and get a good ol' fashioned crossover going. Two superheroes are led by misunderstanding to fight each other, resolve that conflict, and team up to take down the REAL villain. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.

Except Bats V Supes is something of a bloated mess of a movie that has multiple ideas, plotlines, and even tones jockeying for the limelight.

The plot of the movie, such as it is, follows Superman trying to find his place in a world that is now in awe of his godlike power, and sometimes fears him. Rightfully so, as the opening sequence features Bruce Wayne rushing to Metropolis during the climactic battle of the last movie and trying to save people's lives while building an understandable resentment for the carnage caused in Superman's wake.

We skip ahead to where Bruce Wayne's hatred of Superman festers into a two-year obsession with finding a way to stop or even kill the Kryptonian while Superman struggles with trying to do Superman stuff like saving Lois Lane from bad guys and being inspirational in a movie that wants to punish him for doing Superman stuff. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is trying to get the U.S. Government to fund his attempts to experiment on Kryptonian technology so that he can find a way to kill Superman. And Wonder Woman shows up occasionally to justify her being in the climactic fight scene with Doomsday.

Is it a total mess worth 29% on Rotten Tomatoes? No. Zach Snyder continues to have a flair for shot composition, and that's something I think people miss. Hell, during Man of Steel, the movie goes from a washed out and gray color palette that increases in colorfulness as Superman begins doing more and more Hero stuff, so that by the end of the movie, its bright and colorful. Which is not something I ever saw mentioned in Man of Steel reviews.

Action sequences are generally well put together. When Batman fights goons, there's a visceral speed to how he takes people down. When you get to the Main Event between Batman and Superman, its a brutal slugging match as Batman has to keep finding ways to hamstring Superman in order to be able to hurt him.

Ben Affleck is great as an older, more jaded Bruce Wayne who's been doing the Batman thing for two decades. There are hints at the cost of being Batman, such as the dead Robin costume with Joker graffitti and the burned out husk of Stately Wayne Manor. This is an older, wiser, but deeply flawed Batman who, refreshingly, makes mistakes and gets outwitted occasionally. No Batgod here.

Instead of Batgod, we get Bat of Murder. This is terrible, because in just about every Batman story out there that isn't a movie version (*cough* Tim Burton *cough*), Batman has two simple rules: No killing. No guns. What does he do here? Kill people with guns. Quite a lot. Even in his dream sequences. Which makes him a hypocrite when he criticizes the destruction that follows Superman. It makes them both hypocrites. Its a horrible mis-characterization that mars an otherwise fantastic Batman.

Wonder Woman is played by the Fast & Furious' Gal Gadot. The whole “she's too skinny to play Wonder Woman” thing before the movie came out was dumb. She looks fine enough and there are worse problems with the movie anyway. Acting-wise, there's not much to evaluate her on. She shows up to be mysterious in the first half, and then shows up for the big team up. The biggest problem with Wonder Woman in this is that she's unnecessary. The movie could've happened without her with minimal changes. “Wonder Woman: International Woman of Mystery” isn't a bad hook for the character, but I doubt the movie in the works will take that direction.

I maintain that Henry Cavill is a good Superman. He's got the face and can sell the earnestness of the character, but both Man of Steel and this seem hell bent on not letting Superman feel good about helping people. Yes he saves people, but its in a slow motion montage that shoots for profundity and misses. Part of the appeal of Superman is that he is always going out of his way to help people, even if its for fairly mundane stuff, like stopping car accidents, foiling amateur bank robberies, or talking a suicidal person off a ledge. Showing Superman fix a spare tire or save a cat from a tree would have gone miles to helping his character in this. They mention this this kind of behavior, when Bruce Wayne accuses Clark Kent of writing puff pieces for Superman, but this is a direct reversal of the SHOW, DON'T TELL rule of storytelling.

Instead we get a sort of dream sequence where the ghost of Pa Kent tells a depressing story about how he helped his farm in a flood but in doing so caused the neighbors' horses to drown and some offhand lines about how he's trying fly Doomsday away from a populated area to minimize damage. Instead of Superman going to Congress and giving an inspiring speech about the infinite potential for human goodness, we have an explosion go off before he can say anything at all in his defense. Hell, the speech he gives to the UN in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a more effective moment, and that movie is all kinds of dumb.

Its enormously frustrating because the movie is hell-bent on turning Superman into a Christ-figure instead of turning him into Superman.

Amy Adams' Lois Lane is fine. She snoops around doing reporter stuff, gets in trouble, Superman rescues her. Classic Lois stuff. I still feel that she would make a better Lana Lang, but oh well.

Jeremy Irons is amazing as Alfred. He's got the right mix of paternal admonishment and encouragement for Batman. Its great. More Alfred, please.

Holly Hunter plays Senator Finch, a character who doesn't really bring much to the table outside of being part of a SHOCKING PLOT TWIST that lands with a thud. It involves a jar of piss labeled peach juice because of a comment made to Lex Luthor. Because scatological humor, am I right folks? 

Speaking of Lex, Jesse Eisenberg's version is just...bizarre. He's very young, very clearly Lex Luthor Jr., and has a mop of unruly hair and twitchy mannerisms that jump all over the place. Sort of like those insufferable millennial hipsters that infest San Francisco. An SJW hipster is a neat concept for a villain, except at that point he's no longer Lex Luthor. Part of Lex's character through his various incarnations has been the projection of strength and control, even when its just a front. This Lex can't even make a speech to a charity event without losing track of what he's saying. He's a creepy weirdo, but unlike Gene Hackman's clownish sociopath or Kevin Spacy's charismatic megalomaniac, this Lex doesn't have that edge of brilliance lurking underneath that justifies his arrogance. Instead, he's pretty much the Joker without the greasepaint.

“But its a false front! He's a master manipulator and he's just fooling everyone into thinking he's a wuss!”

Again, that's not Lex Luthor. Part of the reason he hates Superman is because Lex wants to be strong while Clark Kent IS strong. Lex will never be that kind of strong because Superman's strength comes from his selflessness and Luthor is deeply selfish.

Its a pity, because Eisenberg gives flashes of the real Lex here and there, but again, the movie doesn't let the character be the character.

Adding to the bloat of the film are all the teases for the Justice League. Batman has a dream sequence where he's in a post-Apocalyptic world with a giant Omega symbol and he gets attacked by evil army people, and he starts murdering the hell out of them until he gets overwhelmed by goons and full-blown Parademons. As a tease for Darkseid, its kind of interesting, but it grinds the movie to a halt and doesn't add anything other than a blatant “WE'LL GIVE YOU DARKSEID PLEASE KEEP WATCHING THESE MOVIES.” In that same vein, we get a "thrilling" scene as Wonder Woman receives an email from Batman with data on other metahumans and she opens up video clips of the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. Its hokey, especially Aquaman spending thirty seconds going Grrrrrr at the camera before destroying it, and it could have worked if the movie would have let itself be hokey. 

Which comes down to the fundamental problem running throughout this movie. It feels like there is a constant struggle between the whether or not the characters should act like themselves. When they do, the movie is better. More often than not, they don't for the sake of fitting into the plot's demands.

A strong character can completely derail a scene or plotline simply by acting in character, spoiling the writer's outline and taking it in a different direction. This movie feels like the characters are trying to do that, but editorial/studio intervention is constantly trying to clamp down on them so that the officially mandated plot can assert itself. Because we have to force nods to The Death and Return of Superman as well as The Dark Knight Returns regardless of them making sense.

Much like that jar of peach juice, the label on Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to tell you its a fun superhero movie about how Superman and Batman met and planted the seeds of the Justice League, when its actually just a bloated mess of conflicting plotlines, characterizations, themes that reminds me more of X-Men III than either the Justice League or even The Avengers.

Its a huge letdown, made more so by the flashes of quality gasping for air. If it was a smaller movie simply about Lex Luthor manipulating the media into getting Batman and Superman to fight each other for his own amusement/ambitions, it could have been fantastic. The climax of the film was and should have remained the fight between the title characters and the realization that they're both good men who've been played. Instead we got a pointless fight with Doomsday for the sake of a fight and Superman's death for the sake of an obvious resurrection down the road to save the Justice League at a critical moment. 

If we're lucky he'll have that 90s era mullet.


Not recommended.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

“And if you were a man, baby, I’d knock your teeth out.”


So movies have taught me that your average 1950s teenagers were all in their 30s and as a course of habit always getting into every kind of convoluted predicament imaginable. Case in point: Daddy-O from 1958.

Plot
It starts with Phil (Dick Contino) driving a truck and being cut off by a curvy blonde in a Thunderbird, and he runs her off the road. Her name’s Jana “Jan” Ryan (Sandra Giles), and they argue so much that its obvious they end up together. They meet again at a restaurant/bar where Phil, “Daddy-O” to his friends, sings to the crowd on occasion. One of Phil’s friends, Sonny, is in a sullen and rather creepy mood (see, its ironic because his disposition doesn’t match his name, which...eh, you get the idea). Sonny’s in bad with a fat man named Sidney Chillis, sort of a cross between Orson Wells wand Sidney Greenstreet (played by Bruno VeSota). Chillis is obviously evil, and even has a slack-jawed henchman wearing coke bottle glasses. His name’s Bruce Green (Jack McClure) and he runs a gym and he’s incredibly unintimidating.

Whoo, things are getting complicated. Jan meets Phil again at the restaurant and challenges him to a race. Loser has to buy pizza. They get separated during the race and independently, Sonny was run off the road by Chillis and Bruce and died. The police think Phil did it through reckless driving, but his car doesn’t show any damage from a hit & run. Still, Phil’s license is revoked for other traffic violations because reasons. Phil suspects Jan, but she didn’t do it. Together they go into junior detective mode and track Sonny’s trail to Chillis and Bruce. Chillis offers Phil a job as a singer and errand-boy for his new club the Hi-Note, and Phil accepts, getting a fake ID and a new car. Phil also takes a codename (which is just his performing nickname) for his shady deliveries. Complicated story simplified, Chillis is using Phil to run dope for him while Phil tries to figure out the cause of Sonny’s death. Basically it leads to a goofy climactic fight scene in a basement filled with wine racks.

Characters
Contino is affable enough as Phil, though in a somewhat bland way. Phil gives the impression of being a decent guy who doesn’t think things through before acting. His song, “Rock Candy Baby” is kind of bad, but also just catchy enough for the refrain to worm its way into your head and remind you how bad it is every now and then.

Jan is spunky and shoots her mouth off a lot in the beginning. She’s also a reckless driver. Then she morphs into a love interest/sidekick for Phil and the two have a brief falling out when Phil starts palling around with Chillis’s secretary for a little bit.

Bruce Green is, again, not an imposing henchman. The absurdly thick glasses lead to that perpetual squinty-look. You know, the kind where the nose scrunches up and the mouth hangs open a bit. Bruce’s face is like that the ENTIRE MOVIE.

Sidney Chillis is, oddly enough, the most interesting character. He’s smug and clearly crooked, but he’s also a really classy and erudite guy. He gives Phil two jobs doing what he likes (singing and driving), provides him a car, sets him up with a fake ID, and even gets him some nicer clothes. If it wasn’t for the whole “dope smuggling racket” he had going, he’d be a fantastic boss.

Conclusion
Wait, before the end, I have to note that a young John Williams did the musical score for this movie. Its jazzy and better than a lot of contemporary music, but also not quite the level of awesomeness that Williams would eventually reach. Still, the music’s pleasant.


Daddy-O is ultimately another inoffensive, forgettable teensploitation movie from the 50s. A few interesting elements/characters and a listenable soundtrack don’t do anything to lift it above its contemporaries. But I can’t say that its downright terrible. Its merely forgettable.  


No trailer for this, but here's Rock Candy Baby from the movie, because if I had to listen to it, you can too.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Doctor Who: You'll Be AMAZED!

I BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW THESE ASTONISHING DOCTOR WHO FACTS



1.     It is a science fiction show about a time traveling alien called the Doctor and his human companions.

2.     It is produced by the BBC

3.    The Doctor's greatest foes are the Daleks, a militant race of genocidal aliens bent on extermination.

4.     The Doctor's time machine is the Tardis, which is permanently stuck disguised as British police box.

5.     The Tardis is larger on the inside than the outside.

6.     The Doctor's greatest foes are the Cybermen, a race of coldly analytical cybernetic monsters that assimilate victims into their collective.

7.     The current Doctor is played by Peter Capaldi

8.     The Doctor's greatest foe is the Master, an evil and insane Time Lord.

9.     The Doctor dislikes killing and weapons, so his preferred tool is the sonic screwdriver, which can do whatever the writers want it to.

10.    “Who” is not the Doctor's name. He refers to himself simply as the Doctor.

Friday, August 08, 2014

“Quivering Venusian blubber cups!”


Star Wars immediately exploded into a big cultural phenomenon, yielding an actual slew of space opera imitators, mostly lower budget imitations that tend toward cheese or ineptness or both. Something like Space Mutiny is an example of lazy ineptness leading to a really funny trainwreck. Then there's low budget sci-fi comedy, where the ineptness leads to something stale and unfunny, like 1980's Galaxina.

Plot
So after an opening title crawl (Star Wars reference) explaining that its the year 3008, and the police cruiser Infinity of the United Intergalactic Federation is finishing up a patrol mission and en route to a new assignment. On the way they get into an argument and then firefight with a ship that looks like an actual bird of prey (Star Trek reference). The Infinity is damaged, the captain eats an egg and coughs up an alien (Alien reference) and almost halfway through the movie the actual plot kicks in: The crew are assigned to recover an item called the Blue Star (Ahhhhhhhh) from prison planet Altair One on a journey that will take 27 years to complete, so before jumping into cryosleep, the crew jump into a space whorehouse for some shore leave.

They finally reach the planet, the sexy robot volunteers to look for the macguffin, gets captured by a cult of bikers, gets rescued, and then an anticlimactic fight with the metal-faced guy from the bird ship, and it kind of ends.

Cast
Galaxina: Dorothy R. Stratten was a beautiful woman with a depressing story of rising to fame as a Playboy Playmate and then being murdered-suicided by her insane, jealous husband shortly before this movie was released. That's the 800lb gorilla in the room for this movie. That said, she was very attractive and filled out a slinky jumpsuit very well. With regards to acting? Well, she was a model, and playing a robot, and her character doesn't speak for most of the movie, so...not that great.

Sgt. Thor: Stephen Macht (the dad from Monster Squad) plays the grizzled, stogie smoking 2nd in command of the ship. He gets metal fever falls in love with Galaxina and tries to touch and kiss her, leading to painful electric shocks. She eventually reciprocates, reprogramming herself to be able to speak and to not electrify everyone that touches her.

Buzz: James David Hinton play who I think is the communications guy. Its not very clear what his role is. What is clear is his southern drawl, cowboy hat, and Dodgers jersey with the sleeves cut off. Ha ha. Isn't it funny that Dodgers jerseys still exist a thousand years in the future? Comedy!

Captain Cornelius Butt: Funnyman Avery Schreiber plays the blustering, bumbling captain of the Infinity, occasionally narrating some captain's logs. The schtick is at times funny and at times grating, and he's arguably the funniest member of the cast. Though he does take an sadistic glee in “feeding” a prisoner called Rock Biter by throwing styrofoam rocks at him through his prison bars in a painfully unfunny scene. Also, his last name is Butt. Comedy!

Maurice: Lionel Mark Smith plays the winged, ambiguously alien black mechanic who's fake ears don't match the rest of his skin tone.

Sam Wo: Tad Horino plays the weed smoking, Confuscian-esque nonsense spewing guy who hangs out with Maurice in the engine room. Doesn't actually do anything else.

Ordric from Morderick: Played by Ronald Knight and voiced by Percy Rodrigues, this is our villain. A metal faced guy in a robe reminiscent of Darth Vader, but with a silly reverb effect on his voice and a rude attitude.

Chopper: The leader of a cult of bikers that worship Harley David-Son. I’m really only mentioning him because the actor’s name Aesop Aquarian (or Stephen Morrell), which is kind of awesome.

Visuals
Directed by William Sachs, who's done a number of low budget movies. The movie looks fine. The sets and lighting are serviceable to good, the costumes aren't too terrible (except for Maurice's ears), and the model ships look all right. Hell, even the laser effects of the “space battle” look pretty good with the rotoscoping effect of lasers dissipating against shields. The fight is boring since its two ships sitting still and going pew pew pew, but it looks okay. One thing that doesn't look great is the orange filter...thing employed for exterior daylight scenes on Altair One. It hurts the eyes after a while watching Galaxina walking around a Wild West set populated by fair-to-middling alien costumes. Yes there's a wild west town set. Probably because it was cheap to film on.

Pacing though? That's rough. There are long stretches where not a lot happens.

Oh yes, and at one point Ordric is watching First Spaceship onVenus.

Writing
Written by William Sachs, the script is where the movie falls. So much of the movie is filled with 5th grade jokes (Cornelius Butt), cheap references to other movies (there's an alien bartender named Mr. Spot who looks almost exactly like someone else, oh, who is it? Oh. Right. Barbarella), Avery Schreiber (probably) improving with mixed results, and a few actual good comedic bits. Captain Butt's narration is in turns exasperated and pompous.

Whenever someone says “Blue Star” an angelic chorus plays, causing everyone in the scene to look around in confusion for the source of the sound. That's actually the best bit in the movie, since it starts out random, gets annoying, and then comes back around to being actually kind of funny since they commit to the joke as hard as possible, even going so far as to change it to an almost Doo-wop version when Chopper says it. The god the bikers worship is an actual Harley Davidson, which isn't that funny, but the heroes escape the bikers on it, which leads to a chase scene where a bunch of bikers on horses are chasing after a spaceman and robot lady on a motorcycle. That's a moment of zen right there.

The rest of the jokes don't really work, either because of timing, editing, or delivery. They just feel randomly thrown together.

Sounds
The music seems like a bunch of stock audio mixed with public domain classical music, like Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Strauss, and Liszt. It works. I guess.

Conclusion

Galaxina would probably have been funnier if it had an actual plotline instead of throwing a bunch of jokes at the wall only for most of them to fall short. Or if it had been a serious space opera. Or if the jokes were better. In the end, it feels like people went “Star Wars! That's popular, but everyone's making Star Wars imitations. I know! A parody movie!” It's a shame because the end result is below average and plodding. Watch Spaceballs instead. 


Monday, July 14, 2014

“This nobility business is not the cloth we're cut from.”


Hey! Remember Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time? No, not the critically acclaimed (and damn hard) PlayStation 2 platformer, that came out in 2003 (which itself was a sort of reboot of a series going back to 1989). I'm talking about the attempted blockbuster epic adventure that was released in 2010. You don't remember it? But it had Sir Ben Kingsley in it and stuff. (Be warned, I'm going to abuse a lot parentheses today.)

Plot
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time features a bunch of tanned Caucasian “Persians” (and Ben Kingsley) conquering the holy city of Alamut and in the process of sort of looting it, one of the Princes in command of the army happens upon a magic dagger, then gets framed for his father's death and goes on the run with the Princess of Alamut. The two have a bickering will-they-won't-they (of course they will) series of mishaps and adventures, while also trying to clear the Prince's name and figuring out how to refill a time travel dagger with magic sand. (that last part is actually from the game, and not nearly as stupid as it sounds.)

A quick note about the Hollywood penchant for casting. Yes, it would be nice if actors of appropriate ethnicities would be cast for those ethnicities, but the nebulous “studio execs” are probably more interested in using familiar names and faces to ensure people go “Oh, that new Jake Gyllenhaal movie?” instead of “Oh, that weird fantasy movie with a bunch of foreigners?” It's a tale as old as cinema, and one probably based more on economic estimates than racism.

Characters
Prince Dastan: Jake Gyllenhaal is our titular Prince, only not really. In the beginning of the movie, he's a homeless streetrat with great climbing skills and a heart of gold. So basically Disney's Aladdin. Except this time his moxie is noticed by the King of Persia, who takes him in and adopts him as a third son, making his origins as a low class schlub effectively meaningless outside of a few conversations. That part of his character could have been cut without any consequence to the movie. As for the character himself, he's a decent enough guy, who has the loyalty of his men, but he's also dense as rocks, which propels the plot but gets a bunch of people killed along the way. As for Gyllenhaal himself, he looks the part, can move around well, but doesn't infuse the character with nearly enough rogueish swagger to make him memorable.

Tamina: Gemma Arterton is the princess of Alamut and charged with keeping the sacred sands (and the dagger) safe, lest very bad things happen. Then Dastan sneaks into her city, opens the gates, which leads to them being conquered and her being taken prisoner. She's understandably pissed, and gets stuck with Dastan. At first her constant paranoia and betrayals of Dastan make sense, but after a certain point, it gets old and lingers longer than her mistrust of him should. The two don't really have great chemistry together.

King Sharaman: Ronald Pickup plays Dastan's adoptive dad. Apparently a benevolent and standup guy, he's not happy that his sons went out of their way to attack Alamut when that wasn't part of the original plan. Dastan is given a robe to give to his father as a gift, and then said robe turns out to be poisoned and painfully burns Sharaman to death, which is something more out of Greek myth than Persian, but hey, you don't see it often so I'll let it slide. His death sets in motion the real plot of the film.

Nizam: Ben Kingsley plays the King's brother and the princes' uncle. He's a royal vizier and Ben Kingsley, so, uh, spoiler alert: he's the bad guy. Shocking, I know. Anyway, he's always fun to watch.

Tus: Richard Coyle (Jeff from Coupling) plays the eldest Prince and heir to the throne. A responsible, conscientious leader, he's kind of a standup guy. But still, he's Jeff from Coupling, so I sat there the whole time thinking about the giggle loop and the Melty Man. Bit of a dissonance.

Garsiv: Toby Kebbell plays Tus' hotheaded younger brother and head of the military. Kind of an arrogant jerk for most of the movie, but not really that bad of a guy.

Sheik Amar: Alfred Molina in glorious ham mode as a shady merchant who runs “the Valley of the Slaves” a horrible place with a deadly reputation that he cooked up so he can avoid paying taxes and run his own fantasy Persian Las Vegas, with ostrich races and hookers. The character is a collage of anachronisms and weirdness, but it doesn't matter because Molina going to town on the scenery is the best thing in the whole movie.

Seso: Steve Toussaint plays Sheik Amar's soft-spoken henchman. A member of the Ngbaka tribe famed for knife-throwing skills, he first comes off as dumb muscle but turns into Amar's conscience and a capable ally for the Prince. Actually, the friendship between Amar and Seso has more chemistry and is more convincing than Dastan and Tamina's relationship. So much so that Sheik Amar's often flippant boast “Have I told you about the Ngbaka?” speech eventually becomes the most poignant and moving line in the entire movie at a certain point.

Visuals
Directed by Mike Newell (who directed one of the better Harry Potter films along with Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral), the film features lots of brown and gold. And sand, obviously. Some of this is a product of post-processing and digital coloring and filters and CGI and stuff, which is understandable, but it doesn't make the color palette any less drab. This is disappointing, since the special “making-of” featurette shows more greenery and color when discussing location scouting. That made me sad.

As for the visual effects that go with this kind of movie, they're kind of forgettable. The first (and second) time Dastan uses the dagger, its an interesting effect of rewinding time that echoes how the game did it a little. There is nothing outright bad about the special effects (though the somewhat silly Hassansin squad gets pretty close with their gimmicks), but nothing I'd consider memorable. The same goes for the art direction: competent yet forgettable. There are no monster designs to speak of (disappointing considering the high fantasy tone) and the fight scenes are adequate without standing out.

Stuff happens, it looks all right, and then more all right looking stuff happens. This is a shame, considering that ancient Persia is not something usually touched upon in big Hollywood movies.

Writing
Based on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, scree story by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, and screenplay by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard. The most interesting plot bits are the ones taken from the video game. A magical dagger that can turn back time is a really neat concept, both in terms of game mechanics and narrative touches. Everything else feels like generic fantasy ADVENTURE elements. Everyman rises to a position of privileged authority, goes on ADVENTURE to clear his name and stop a coup and along the way gets to bicker with a hot princess that knows where the magic sand is that can refill the time dagger. Even so, something more could be made out of those plot elements and this movie doesn't. Instead I spent a lot of time thinking about how it was jarring that slavery was mentioned several times despite Persia being considerably less interested in keeping slaves than its neighbors like, oh, let's say Greece (Don't believe me? Read up on the helots. That's some depressing stuff.).

The rest of the movie was spent wondering why the movie went out of its way to establish Dastan as a street rat orphan with great parkour skills and a heart of gold, except instead of a monkey in a fez and a flying carpet he gets adopted by the king and elevated to the status of a prince. This serves no true narrative purpose beyond a few references here and there. It could have been cut from the movie without affecting anything except shaving off about ten minutes of runtime. Just have him be the youngest son who's a black sheep because he's a bit of wild rebel who doesn't take his position as seriously as his older brothers so he gets restless and does something stupid and then has to clean up his mess. That's motivation enough for most fairy tales, and all of those elements are in the movie. Hell, the motivation for the assassination of the king is actually quite elegant (and petty, but hey, its regicide) in its simplicity.

Instead we get some bullshit about him being some everyman commoner, except he's not. He's an orphan with exceptional climbing ability and a reckless courage. Yes, this kind of exceptionalism does show up in folklore a lot, but its perfectly fine for your protagonist to be an exceptional individual with a simple or undefined backstory. IndianaJones is a pulp archeologist who's great with a whip and a mean right hook. John McLane is an overworked, cynical cop estranged from his family but succeeds due to cunning and stubborness. Robin Hood is an altruistic nobleman and marksman who becomes outraged by injustice and decides to do something about it. These are great characters because of their exceptional deeds and outsized personalities. Dastan only gets a few chances to really be a character, like when he's trying to lie to Sheik Amar about his real identity, realizes that its not working, laughs sheepishly and then makes a run for it. If the movie was more like that scene it would have been much better.

Oh, and one more thing, in a movie where the major plot device can magically turn back time, it kind of telegraphs how the ending's going to go.

Sounds
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams. He's done much better work. Like so much else in the movie, it is serviceable but ultimately forgettable.

Verdict
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a functional piece of movie that does what it intends to. It looks fine and holds together reasonably well, much like a solid chair. Also like a solid chair, you don't really think about it unless you are making a deliberate effort to analyze it for its strengths and weaknesses and so you can judge it by its merits, but only lunatics do that sort of thing.


...ahem...

What I mean to say is that Prince of Persia feels like it was made with a checklist in hand and then a bunch of competent people were told to go make what was on the checklist. That makes it merely average and forgettable, which is a miracle for video game based movies.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Books! That's what started this whole apocalypse!”


Oh Italy. Italy, Italy, Italy. Home of so many low-budget B-movie knock-offs of popular genre films. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior came out in 1981, and I nuovi barari AKA The New Barbarians AKA Warriors of the Wasteland followed soon after in 1983.

Plot
So there's this murderous gang of dudes driving around in dune buggies and bikes rampaging across the wasteland. They have big hair, even bigger shoulder pads, and follow a madman who blames humanity for bringing about the apocalypse. For that, their leader, the unimaginatively named One (George Eastman), has decided that Mankind must die. He's assisted by Shadow (Ennio Giorlami as “Thomas Moore”) who has a silly blonde mohawk wig, and Mako (Massimo Vanni), who has an even larger black mohawk wig. And the whole death cult wear white jumpsuits with HUGE shoulder pads.

Standing (well, driving) in their way is Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete as “Timothy Brent”), a wanderer and scavenger, he's also not interested in killing all of humanity. He is interested in killing One's Templars, so he's our hero. He's got a tricked out car with a giant plastic bubble installed on the roof. I don't know why. He rescues Alma (Anna Kanakis) a random wastelander, from the Templars, and looks for medical attention to her. They're rescued from Templars by Nadir, who is easily the best character in the movie. Nadir is ex-football star and B-movie star extraordinaire Fred Williamson, armed with a bow, gold armor, a gold circlet, and a shit-eating grin. He's not a great actor, but he's an enthusiastic one, and seems to be aware of exactly the kind of movie he's in and is happy to cash the paycheck.

The three find a community of peaceful not-Quakers who are led by Father Moses (Nenantino Venantini) and believe in something called god. They also believe in the Signal, which is some kind of radio transmission coming from somewhere in the wasteland and indicates hope that there might be someplace in the world that isn't a rocky quarry.

Visuals
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, the movie is obviously a low budget cheapie. Filmed primarily in a gravel pit and a country road. There is one car, a handful of motorcycles and a couple dune buggies with ridiculous metal plates bolted on. A lot of mannequins get shot and blown up. Scorpion and Alma make love in a transparent inflatable tent. As I mentioned, the Templars have absurd costumes with giant shoulder pads and giant hair. For the final battle, Scorpion wears an articulated, transparent plastic cuirasse over his bare torso because...its bulletproof? And yet the movie moves at a rapid clip and doesn't bog down much in exposition before heading to the next ridiculous scene. That makes it noteworthy.

What's more noteworthy, but for different reasons, is the incredibly awkward scene where, oh yeah....

SPOILERS BELOW



NO REALLY, AWKWARD SPOILERS INVOLVING BUTTS BELOW

After capturing Scorpion, One sodomizes him before the rest of the Templars. Now, you don't see any penetration, but it happens. Its weird, uncomfortable, and comes out of nowhere. What's stranger is that its also the scene that makes the most out of actual direction and cinematography to create an unpleasant atmosphere. There's multiple colored lights in the background, heavy use of shadows, and rapid cuts to extreme close ups of various people. Its the one scene of the film that artistically “goes for it,” and its the sodomizing scene. That is bizarre.

END SPOILERS

Writing
Written by Tito Carpi (of several Sartana movies and various other Spaghetti-Exploitation films), Enzo G. Castellari and Antonio Visone. The plot is lazy but functional, aping standard post-apocalyptic struggle-to-survive stories and conventions.

Then there's the whole “the Templars are genocidal, homosexual atheists” thing. I will say that's not something I've ever really seen before in a movie, so, uh, points for originality. They contrast with the peaceful, god-fearing, heterosexual settlers, but I'm not really sure there's an actual message to that. The caravan people are a stock element fresh out of Westerns, and their faith is alien to Scorpion and Nadir, who side with them because they're not murderous maniacs like the Templars. I honestly think the Templars' “mission statement” was something quickly slapped together to provide them with easy villainous motivation and that's it.

Sounds
Music by Claudio Simonetti. Its the standard low-budget 80s fare. Synths, guitars, the usual. The guns (which are regular guns) have pew pew noises. Everyone is dubbed over. All of the cars have this phony engine drone dubbed over them, because THE FUTURE.

The Verdict

Warriors of the Wasteland is an awful movie, yet a bizarrely watchable one. It moves quickly, is full of (idiotic) action scenes and car chases, and it lends itself to mockery so well. I wouldn't say its incompetently made, more lazy and cheap. A simple cash in that aspires to little more. Come for the giant shoulder pads, but stay for Fred Williamson, who appears to be the only actor having fun in the film. Oh, but what fun he has. 







Why? No reason.