Monday, August 31, 2009

“I don't cook! I'm a scary and powerful fire demon!”

Giving straight-up comedy a break, we turn to Japan and master animator Hayao Miyazaki and his 2004 work, Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle). Being an animation fan, I was aware of Miyazaki, but haven’t seen any of his films before.

Based on a novel, this story follows a young girl in a vaguely Victorian fantasy world where wizards and witches can find work for the government. The girl, meek and timid, is rescued from an uncomfortable situation by a charismatic wizard who can walk on air. After he leaves, she gets cursed into an old woman by a witch looking for the wizard, and eventually stumbles upon and takes residence in the wizard’s castle, a strange, demon-powered mess of metal and wood with legs. As the two characters get to know each other, they find themselves caught up in the middle of a war.

*Note* I’ll be using the English voice cast here, since A) that’s how I saw it, and B) it is based on a novel written in English.

Sophie: Young version voiced by Emily Mortimer, old version by Jean Simmons (the veteran British actress, not the KISS frontman). Sophie’s a timid, shy girl who works in a haberdasher’s (hat shop) and is convinced she’s plain looking at best. After a chance encounter with Howl gets her cursed by a witch, she becomes an old woman, and the revelation is heartbreaking. Tremendously sympathetic performances from both actresses, along with the animation quality make Sophie an incredibly deep character. She really wants to undo the curse, but along the way, falls in love with Howl.

Howl: voiced by Christian Bale (Yes, that one) Howl is a powerful, but haunted wizard. He’s under some kind of curse/condition that he won’t reveal, but it seems everyone and their mother is looking for him either for help or revenge. His castle has legs so it can keep him on the move, and his door has a dial that can open up other doors in other cities. Usually laid back, he’s also an audacious free spirit who likes transforming into a bird-like form to fly around.

The Witch of the Wastes: Lauren Bacall (Yes, that one) voices an old, vindictive, formerly beautiful witch that was once Howl’s lover, until he spurned her. She’s the one who curses Sophie.

Madame Suliman: Voiced by Blythe Danner (yet another veteran actress) she’s an official in the kingdom and trying to get Howl to show up for the war effort. She’s not a nice lady and has an army of black blobby humanoids that wear pork-pie hats and may or may not still be human. They’re freaky.

Calcifer: A fire demon voiced by Billy Crystal, Calcifer’s a little guy in a fireplace that provides the steering and propulsion for the castle and has a direct connection to Howl’s condition. He’s the first one inside to meet Sophie, and the two build up a banter-based relationship. He gets most of the best comedic lines.

Markl: Josh Hutcherson voices Howl’s apprentice, a kid with a cloak that can disguise him as a dwarf with a big bushy beard.

Turniphead: The movie’s true badass is a cursed scarecrow with a turnip for a head. Mute but capable of expressing himself by hopping around, he wanders the wastes and helps Sophie at every turn. Turniphead gets shit done.

Jaw dropping. Quite literally this is a visual masterpiece. The backgrounds are lovingly detailed, characters are nuanced and the moving castle itself is a staggeringly successful merging of 2-D and 3-D art that’s a joy to watch moving around. It is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest mechs I’ve seen.

The pacing of the film is a bit on the slow side, but even during those scenes, there’s enough eye candy to keep your attention.

The novel is by Diana Wynn Jones, and I’ve never read it so I can’t say what Miyazaki changed for his script. Regardless, the film features very strong characterizations that make you care about what happens on screen. The villains get a bit grotesque, but they’re never cardboard moustache twirlers. The magic involved is both practical and inventive, and Sophie’s reactions of wonder to them are great.

The score by Joe Hisaishi works incredibly well, providing ample cues of ADVENTURE! and Romance.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a visual masterpiece. I was thoroughly impressed by that, and in addition to stunning visuals, it was full of well developed characters and an interesting story. Most assuredly worth a viewing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

“…and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped.”

And now, to pop the proverbial cherry of Arthurian films (Dragonheart was just foreplay) we come to the inimitable, indomitable, incorrigible Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or Mønti Pythøn ik den Høli Gräilen) from 1975.

Well, there’s this king in England in 932 AD, and he’s riding around the countryside, seeking knights for his court. When he finds them, the heavens open up and God tells him to look for the Holy Grail. The knights split up, have some ADVENTURES!, reconvene, have more ADVENTURES! and hilarity ensues for 91 or so minutes.

The plot is deceptively simple.


King Arthur: Graham Chapman is our Hero, King Arthur. He plays the character pretty straightforwardly, actually. He seeks the Holy Grail for the glory of god & country. Something like the only sane man in a mad world, and it works well. The only real quirk they give him is his constant confusing of the numbers three and five.

Patsy: Terry Gilliam (the silent Python) plays Arthur’s squire, baggage handler and cocoanut clapping “horse.” Always by Arthur’s side, the character has one line. (Which isn’t to say that Gilliam doesn’t do more stuff in the film: he’s also the Old Man from Scene 24)

Sir Bedevere: Terry Jones is Arthur’s first recruit, the scientifically inclined thinker with an impractical helmet, Bedevere. He also has difficulty saying “aghhh”

Sir Lancelot: John Cleese plays the homicidally brave Lancelot, who on his solo adventure, storms a castle and slaughters some wedding guests.

Sir Galahad: Michael Palin is the chaste Galahad and becomes imperiled by a castle full of virgins. Isn’t sure about his favorite color.

Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot: Eric Idle as the coward Robin, who carries a huge shield with a chicken on it and is followed by minstrels.

The Killer Rabbit: The film’s badass is a fluffy white stuffed animal that is also a merciless killing machine that kills several knights.

Now, there are loads of other characters in the film, most played by the Pythons themselves, and they’re all comedic, insane and only around for a scene or two each. Its not practical to go into them, but Cleese’s Tim the Enchanter, a wizard with a thick Scottish brogue stands out as exceptionally hammy. Also, Connie Booth & Carol Cleveland (veterans of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers) make brief appearances.

Directed by Terries Jones & Gilliam, the film balances between a kind of gritty realism (armor is done fairly historically accurate with chain mail, tunics, etc. - Jones himself is a bit of a medievalist) and absurd visuals. The visuals themselves were done partially as a stylistic choice, but also heavily influenced by time and budget (they had precious little of either) and the cocoanuts instead of horses, Gilliam’s animations, and even the sudden ending of the movie are all iconic parts of the movie. Which isn’t to say that it looks bad. It’s a fine looking movie, but it also has that low budget, indie film feel.

All six Pythons wrote the script, as is their wont, and its very difficult going into how insane it all is. Told more or less episodically (they were a sketch comedy troupe) the form works here, since Arthurian legends themselves are generally episodic in nature. A lot of thought is given to even the most incidental characters, and the dialog is sharp enough to cut yourself with. There’s a reason why people can quote the movie from beginning to end.

The score was worked on by a number of people, and the “Holy Grail/Main Theme” is fantastically epic. The songs by the Pythons, well, the only full song is “Knights of the Round Table,” but the Pythons’ lyrics are as gloriously insane as their dialog.

Its rather difficult to write up this movie for people who’ve never seen it before. It is gloriously insane, brilliantly written, endlessly quotable and all that other stuff. The humor is very British, and some people are off-put by that. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is easily one of the best comedies out there, even if it has been quoted to death and turned into a musical.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

“We'll settle this the old navy way; The first guy to die, LOSES!”

Had to happen, right? Hot Shots had a sequel, only this time its not a direct, “lets fly some more jets around” film but instead goes for the action movie route in 1993. Once more directed by Jim Abrahams, and with three returning characters, the question is, does the sequel have enough jokes to last for 86 minutes?

America finds itself in hot water once again as Saddam Hussein’s forces keep capturing American soldiers sent in to rescue the last group of soldiers sent in that got captured. The president recruits the one man left who can save the day, but the government has to convince him to leave his seclusion in the first place.

Topper Harley: Charlie Sheen returns, only bulked up dramatically for the role. He still delivers deadpan delivery and his expression changes very little, but when you’re making fun of Rambo, then it works just fine. The inclusion of a better love triangle adds a little depth to the character. He also shoots a bad guy with a chicken.

Ramada Rodham Hayman: Valeria Golino returns as Ramada no-longer-Thompson. She gets more to do in this film, having become an undercover agent for the government behind enemy lines after her estrangement from Topper.

President Thomas “Tug” Benson: Lloyd Bridges returns as the scatterbrained war veteran, except now he’s the President of the United States. The character’s much more solid in this film, staying consistently funny throughout and the subplot where he suits up in a wetsuit to go and extract the prisoners himself goes into absurd territory (both good and bad). Easily the film’s badass.

Colonel Denton Walters: Richard Crenna (from the Rambo films) plays the colonel who tries to bring Topper back, but then gets captured by the enemy, actually prompting Topper to come back to the military.

Michelle Rodham Huddleston: A CIA agent who’s got her eyes on Topper, she’s the one who fully brings him back for the mission, but knows more than she reveals.

Commander Arvid Harbinger: Miguel Ferrer plays the guy in charge of the rescue mission until Topper replaces him. He’s seen too much war and chickens out quite a few times, until Topper finally tells him its okay to pull the trigger on the bad guys in probably one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.

Williams & Rabinowitz: The other squad members under Topper’s command. Michael Colyar’s Williams doesn’t get much development, but Ryan Stiles returns to Hot Shots as a completely different character, demolitions expert/enthusiast Rabinowitz.

Saddam Hussein: Jerry Haleva (who’s listed on IMDB as an actor who’s every credited roles were playing Saddam, a curious tidbit to be sure) is the Villain. He’s a lot of fun to watch as he plays Saddam as a bumbling, petty, lisping goofball who actually makes an amusing counterpart to Tug Benson. He was also in the first Hot Shots, but that was for all of six seconds.

Dexter Hayman: Rowan Atkinson is largely wasted as the fussy freedom fighter and husband of Ramada imprisoned by Saddam.

Special Cameo Appearance/Sheen Family Joke appearance of Martin Sheen as Captain Willard (the character he played in Apocalypse Now) in a passing gag where his and Charlie Sheen’s boats pass each other on the river.

Jim Abrahams’ directing is much better in this film, probably because there isn’t as much stock footage. The film goes full bore absurd for its action scenes, and the visual gags work much better in this film. One part has a tally pop up onscreen during a gunfight as the film’s kill count gleefully tallies bad guys before proclaiming it as the bloodiest film ever. Another part has Topper firing an M60 machine gun on a sinking boat until its empty before cutting to a shot of him waist deep in spent casings. There are a few stinkers, like the out-of-nowhere lightsaber fight between Benson and Saddam, but overall, it’s a marked improvement.

Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft once again, and the jokes and plot are overall better than in the first film.

Original score by the enormously prolific Basil Poledouris (who scored the Conan movies, among other things). It delivers a suitably mock epic action movie sound, but the movie doesn’t have much in the way of recognizable themes.

You know, Hot Shots: Part Deux is a much, much better film than the first one. Charlie Sheen works as a mock action hero and the movie itself is overall better at landing on the funny side of stupid comedy. Its not the best spoof around, but its actually pretty all right and entertaining.

Monday, August 24, 2009

“We gotta mark the spot, though. Put Rabinowitz in a life raft. Have him row in circles until we return.”

Whew, glad those classy movies are behind us. Now we can get back to the lowest common denominator where we belong. 1991 gave us a screwball parody of Top Gun directed (and co-written) by Jim Abrahams, a guy involved in writing the scripts for Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies. That kind of record should be a good thing, right?

The Navy re-instates a hotshot pilot with a disregard for the rules and a dark family history because they need his skills for a risky mission. Returning to base, he bonds with his squadron, falls in love with a beautiful Navy psychologist, and competes with a rival, but all is not well on base, as a conspiracy is afoot that puts the entire mission at risk. The plot is completely and unabashedly stock for any bad/generic military movie, which is the point.

Lt. Topper Harley: Charlie Sheen is the square-jawed, stone faced ace pilot who got drummed out of the Navy for insubordination. His dad was a pilot and apparently got his wingman/co-pilot killed in a freak accident, and the guilt weighs on Topper. Topper’s an incredibly cardboard hero type, piling up all kinds of clichés and Sheen gets the job done. Sheen doesn’t really do much aside from look intently at things, but the character is so incredibly generic that I can’t fault him for it.

Ramada Thompson: Valeria Golino is the obligatory love interest. A shrink with the Navy, Topper falls for her at first sight, but she evaluates him as unfit for combat, which threatens to ground him. Another incredibly generic character.

Lt. Kent Gregory: Cary Elwes hams it up as the rival ace pilot, a cocky jerk who used to be an item with Ramada and has a reason to hate Topper aside from that. His father was the pilot who died in the incident that Topper’s dad supposedly caused. Elwes is probably my pick for badass of the film, not because he gets shit done, but because he chews scenery with a deadpan that almost but never quite turns into a wink at the audience.

Jim “Washout” Pfaffenbach: Jon Cryer plays a squadron mate with an appropriate callsign. A bad pilot with terrible vision, he’s a detriment to the squad and obviously gets drummed out of the squadron. He gets a few jokes and slapstick bits that work and a few that don’t.

Pete “Dead Meat” Thompson: William O’Leary (who was Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor’s brother on Home Improvement) is the friendly, likable, and doomed wingman. Easily the best character because he throws himself head-first into making Dead Meat so gosh darn, gee whiz non-ironic. The joke works because they broadcast his impending death from the very first scene he’s in.

Wilson: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is the Bad Guy, a crooked military contractor who wants to sabotage the mission so as to get the Navy to buy his own fighter jets. That’s about it for him, but the actor’s done tons of voice work, including Batman’s butler Alfred.

Lt. Cmdr. James Block: Kevin Dunn (Sam Witwiky’s dad from the 2 Transformers movies) is the squadron leader, a by the book pilot who’s the one who brings Topper back into the Navy, but also starts needling him about his family history during flight maneuvers.

Admiral Thomas “Tug” Benson: Lloyd Bridges plays a scatterbrained admiral with more war wounds & body part replacements than American’s had wars. He’s an odd character because in a movie filled with intentionally generic characters, he’s still the zany, insane one who gets up to all kinds of antics. Honestly, in the first half of the film, he’s annoying because most of what he’s doing is a rehash of Airplane! but by the time he starts shooting up a funeral service for Dead Meat (like it’s a spoiler) the character’s finally fun to watch and he just really hams it up successfully for the rest of the film.

There are a couple other characters, but nobody of real note aside from Drew Carey Show and Who’s Line Is It Anyway? veteran Ryan Stiles, who plays Mailman, the pilot killed in the accident.

Jim Abrahams frames the shots competently enough, no complaints there, and the movie edits in a lot of stock footage of military things for the “serious stuff.”

There is a disproportionate amount of cheesy sight gags in this movie, most of which are just dumb as opposed to absurd. For example, the gag of an aircraft carrier with valet parking sounds like it should be a funny idea, but to me it just falls completely flat and feels like a pretentious “hey aren’t we clever? You never expected THAT on a carrier!” kind of gag.

Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft both worked on the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, and the influence is very clearly present. Straight-faced delivery of absurd dialog, wordplay and puns, deliberate use of (and pointing out of) obvious tropes. The movie’s at its best when its poking fun at the formulaic and obvious characters of the genre, but the overall effect of the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the other movies mentioned. It feels like an Airplane! spinoff that just can’t find its footing until halfway through.

Sylvester Levay turns in a serviceable score that obviously nods to Top Gun’s soundtrack. The licensed music is also pretty standard of most of the stuff you’d expect to hear in a movie like Top Gun too.

There are certainly worse ways to spend 84 minutes of your time, but then again, there are better ways too. Hot Shots is an okay farce that, when its simply trying to make fun of the given genre’s conventions, succeeds. When it tries doing more than that, it starts straying into a territory that would become populated by the dreaded [Insert Genre Here] Movies that we’re plagued with nowadays.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

“My name is Li Mu Bai. The Green Destiny is mine.”

I wasn’t joking when I said 2000 was a good year for Oscar bait that I’d go for. Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long (hereafter referred to as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for simplicity’s sake) is a period drama that involves swords, revenge, death and love, and squared off against Gladiator at the Academy Awards.

Based on the fourth book of a five novel cycle, the movie is about a teenage girl on the cusp of her arranged marriage who would rather be independent and run away. To that end, she steals a famous sword from a famous swordsman and causes nocturnal mischief under the aegis of her mentor, a man-hating criminal. The warrior and his almost-but-not-quite lover set out to reclaim the sword. Quite a bit of DRAMA combined with ADVENTURE! follows for the next 120 minutes.

Jen Yu: Zhang Ziyi in her breakout role as the rebellious noblewoman. She’s at the center of the story, and brings quite a bit sympathy for a character that is ultimately a spoiled, rich bitch who doesn’t think things through leading to bloody consequences. But there’s a reason for her anger. She’s a character that is stifling in a rigid society that demands proper behavior at all times from people at all social stations. But it doesn’t excuse her actions in the least, and several people die because of her.

Master Li Mu Bai: Chow Yun Fat plays a veteran warrior of great repute who is trying to retire from his lifestyle and settle down to a life of quiet contemplation in a temple. As a gesture of this retirement, he makes a gift of his great sword, the Green Destiny to a local official/friend of his named Sir Te. The sword has a habit of being stolen that irks him, and the sudden appearance in the town of a woman named Jade Fox keeps him from hanging up his sword for good. Li Mu Bai has a quiet dignity and strength that’s just plain badass, especially when he starts fighting. There is, however, more to him that it seems. There are hints that the contemplative life of a monastery doesn’t have the answers or serenity that he seeks, and his longtime friend and partner, Yu Shu Lien, is revealed to be one of the most important things in his life. Speaking of which…

Yu Shu Lien: Michelle Yeoh plays Li Mu Bai’s friend and love interest. Her father established a “security firm” and she eventually inherited the business of professional ass-beating. Her friendship with Li Mu Bai goes way back, but due to societal constraints and personal hesitations, neither acted on their feelings for each other in the past. She becomes a close friend of Jen Yu’s during the film, bonding like sisters, and she tries to steer the young girl along a path that is more moderated than the one Jade Fox offers. A stoic, mature warrior woman, she conveys phenomenal volumes of depth and sympathy with subtle facial expressions and movements. For being both a smart and capable warrior, businesswoman and general fascinating character, she takes my nod as Badass of the Film (though Li Mu Bai is easily a hair’s breadth away from being it).

Lo “Dark Cloud”: A wild bandit leader who met Jen Yu when he raided her caravan and stole her comb. She took offense to that and gave chase, and the two had a whirlwind romance. That’s revealed in a flashback. Lo comes to the city to find her and take her away from the repressive courtly life, but in a lot of ways, only makes more trouble for everyone when he shows up. He’s a wildly audacious free spirit of a character, and his open, honest love for Jen Yu is a great contrast to the severe restraint of everybody else.

Jade Fox: Cheng Pei-Pei plays a bitter, angry woman who acts as Jen Yu’s maid/servant, but is also tutoring her in the ways of combat. She infiltrated a monastery once and murdered Li Mu Bai’s master after observing the school’s combat techniques and sleeping with him. She hates men in general, largely because they keep women down in society, but she’s also pretty psychopathic as far as mentors go.

There are a few other important characters, like Sir Te who I mentioned already and a police inspector/officer who’s in it quite a bit. He’s trying to track down the stolen sword and bring in Jade Fox as well, but he’s there mostly to get his ass kicked.

Pretty. That’s the first impression. Ang Lee’s eye for Dramatic storytelling and setting the mood are great in this film. Colors are lush and the second act is defined by desert browns and the third by forest greens. Its very nicely done.

Of course, being a martial arts film in the Wuxia tradition, there’s plenty of fightin’ to see, and they’re easy on the eyes. The three that particularly stand out to me are the fight in the tea house where Jen Yu tears up a restaurant fighting a bunch of goons who only wanted a friendly sparring match, the incredible duel with Yu Shu Lien in the “dojo” and the iconic fight between Jen and Li Mu Bai in the trees. Extensive wire work was used to make all the leaping and soaring and standing on thin tree branches possible, which was amazing at the time, but it has aged a little bit. Not so much that it breaks suspension of disbelief, but if you’re jaded, the treetop fight really stretches it. Just roll with it.

Du Lu Wang wrote the book and I know nothing about the series it belongs to. Hiu-Ling Wang, James Schamus & Kuo Jung Tsai handled the script adaptation. And there are some interesting contrasts with Gladiator. First, its written in Mandarin Chinese, but second, the pacing is more drawn out as the characters backstories and connections are slowly revealed. It’s a more sophisticated method that adds layers of depth to the characters in a very good way. The plot itself delves very heavily into the Romance genre (classical Romance, not modern kissy-face romance) and despite being about only a few characters, feels very epic in scope.

Composer Tan Dun & Yo Yo Ma worked together on creating the sound for the movie, and its not what you’d expect of an ADVENTURE! score. Most of the themes are haunting cello work, and the action scenes go heavily into percussion. Overall, its very restrained, moody with elements of passion bubbling under the surface and totally appropriate to what’s on screen.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent, excellent film. Beautifully shot with compelling characters and story with haunting music, the movie does fire on all cylinders. It was also something of a gateway drug into the realm period martial arts films from Hong Kong.

Monday, August 17, 2009

“I've seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.”

Sometimes, the stars align and an Oscar bait movie gets made that is right up my alley. 2000 was a good year, because Ridley Scott’s Gladiator came out, an epic drama about corruption, revenge and violence in the shadows of Rome in its glory. It also made out like a bandit at the Academy Awards that year.

Okay, deep breaths. I’m going to go ahead and pretend that this takes place in a bizarro Roman Empire where Marcus Aurelius did not name his son and co-ruler, Commodus, as rightful heir, instead being murdered by said son for the throne. In this fantasy world, the Emperor’s adopted successor is a general named Maximus, chosen because Aurelius wanted to re-establish the Republic and Maximus would support that (I know, it’s a crazy alternate world we’re dealing with). Commodus wants to be the big boss and when Maximus snubs him, the general is arrested, escapes execution but is sold into slavery and his family in Spain is murdered. Wishing for revenge but finding himself stuck as a gladiator, Maximus eventually makes it back to Rome where he can seek out his revenge against the emperor that took everything away from him and restore the ideals of the republic. Which, I suppose is an okay enough plot, until you consider that Commodus, while likely insane and absolutely loved killing things in the gladiatorial arena, was not a particularly cruel emperor and was fairly well-liked by the army and the lower classes and his assassination in 192 led to the extraordinarily bloody and chaotic “Year of Five Emperors” which was exactly what it sounds like. So the scriptwriters basically fail at history forever, but for movie purposes, the plot is straightforward enough to get the job done.

CharactersEmperor Marcus Aurelius: Venerable British actor Richard Harris played the last of the Five Good Emperors. Aurelius is charming, erudite and war-weary, which makes sense for an Emperor who spent most of his reign fighting a war when he would’ve rather been writing about stoic philosophy. Harris does a great job with his small role, but the lines they have him saying about restoring the Republic…well, those were just stupid because no emperor would’ve said that except for Augustus (and he would’ve been lying through his teeth).

Maximus: Russell Crowe in one of his highest-profile roles. As a general, Maximus is a stolid follower of Aurelius and a popular and successful general. His men love him, he gets victory and is a pretty likable character. Then he pisses off Commodus and his life goes to hell. As a gladiator, he’s pretty much resigned to his fate, until he finds out that his team and promoter are going to Rome for the games that Commodus will sponsor. Once there, he’s so popular with the crowd that the Emperor’s enemies (and he himself) realize that Maximus is a very real threat to Commodus. Crowe does a great job as the stoic, but revenge seeking Maximus.

Proximo: Veteran actor Oliver Reed’s last role (he died during filming and a lot of stuff had to be re-written). Proximo is introduced as a wheeling, dealing fight promoter and slaver, a former gladiator himself and one snarky bastard. He’s fantastic and gets some awesome lines, as well as becoming an ersatz mentor figure for Maximus.

Lucilla: Connie Nielsen plays Commodus’ sister and basically co-ruler. She & Maximus have an…awkward history that’s hinted at, and when she discovers the general alive and (more or less) well in the arena, she starts moving plans forward to take Commodus out of the picture. She’s a shady character who’s only real loyalty is to her young son, Lucius, and she otherwise plays the other characters off each other in a cool, detached manner. The historical Lucilla was actually involved in an assassination attempt against Commodus to put her husband (and herself) on the throne, but it failed and she was exiled, then executed by order of Commodus in 183. The movie doesn’t go into that.

Commodus: Joaquin Phoenix gives the best performance of the movie. Commodus is a crazy man who’s more than just a sociopath, and more than just a depraved hedonist. He’s nuanced, cultured, intelligent, a snappy dresser, lazy, and is always trying to prove that he’s worthy of love and adoration, with just a dash of incest to keep things fresh. He’s the Villain, but he brings so much complexity to the role that he’d be the most sympathetic character if not for the whole murder & incest thing, but even that throws him into the realm of Greek Tragedy anyway. Its most interesting that he’s expressly stated as a villain and a tyrant, but while he has lots of people arrested and killed (which is what was expected of a Roman Emperor) he doesn’t actually do anything to make him a “bad emperor” in the movie. Bad person sure, but bad ruler? According to the plot he’s bad because he opposes the senate and the “republic” but that’s modern rubbish tacked onto history. Which isn’t to say that the actual Commodus was a misunderstood hero of history. The guy really was batshit insane according to accounts, but he was sole emperor for 12 years (180-192) so it wasn’t like the people of Rome were against him from the start.

Juba: Djimon Honsou plays a Numidian slave owned by Proximo who bonds with Maximus. He really doesn’t like his current condition and doesn’t want to be a warrior, but survives in the arena thanks to skill and Maximus’ leadership. He effectively becomes Maximus’ sidekick, and someone for the general to bounce ideas off.

Hagen: German actor Ralf Moeller (who was also in Beerfest) plays the big, scary gladiator in Proximo’s troupe. He’s been a slave for a while, and knows what to do in the arena to make the people cheer. A huge badass who eventually bonds with Maximus (because of the general’s leadership in a match stacked against them), he’s pretty damn cool.

Gracchus: Derek Jacobi (who’s been in a lot of British stuff) plays a senator who’s (ugh) trying to restore the Republic. Aloof, aristocratic and “above the people” he’s still presented as a better option to Commodus.

Quintus: Thomas Arana plays Maximus’ former army subordinate, a grizzled looking soldier who makes a good team with Maximus during the preparation for battle. Quintus sides with Commodus, and has Maximus arrested (and orders his execution). Later, Quintus returns as the head of the Praetorian Guard, always at the emperor’s side during public appearances. Out of all the badasses in the film, I have to go with Quintus as the best, simply because he’s a guy who’s devoted to the Empire, a professional soldier who doesn’t let personal junk get in the way of getting shit done, and, when you get right down to it, is the guy who’s responsible for the fate of the emperor. Sure, gladiators may look fancy and flashy, but the Praetorian Guard were responsible for the removal of a huge chunk of emperors from their founding by Augustus to their dissolution by Constantine in the 300s. Rising to the top of that bunch of very scary guys is fucking badass.

Ah, finally something I can fully praise in this movie. Ridley Scott’s directing is marvelous, because quite literally he presents you with a surfeit of marvels. A SURFEIT, I say! CGI is used heavily, but mostly for filling out crowds and backgrounds so as to present the Glorious Glory of Rome. Scott also knows his way around framing, shading, colors and all of that good stuff. The film is fantastically shot, particularly the action scenes. The opening battle is great and the gladiatorial matches are full of speed and fury. Slow motion is used, but in the right places. Interestingly, there are a lot of close ups and edits, but to the filmmakers’ credit, it works in the film’s favor. You can understand exactly what is going on during the fights, with the cuts shifting focus for visual impact, not to hide bad choreography.

David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson all worked on the script at various points, and it kind of shows. There’s a disjointedness to the pacing that doesn’t stop the movie, but things slow down considerably when Lucilla starts making backroom deals with Gracchus, taking the spotlight off the Greek Tragedy between Commodus & Maximus. Sometimes the dialog is great, some lines are awesome, but most of the time its simply serviceable. However, there’s a plot hole that’s unforgivable. After Maximus escapes from his would-be killers, he is somehow able to get from Germania to Hispania (crossing all of Gallia/Gaul and the Pyrenees Mountains) with two horses (one presumably eaten along the way) and no supplies or survival equipment alone, and only misses the soldiers who killed his family & burned the estate down by maybe a day because the ruins were still smoking. Yes its dramatic, but its way too convenient and obvious that they jammed it in to give him more DRAMA to motivate him against Commodus.

The score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard is suitable for the most part, rising to awesome during battle scenes and other moments of glory. The singing parts and some of the “synthesizer-y” bits didn’t do much for me though.

Gladiator is a fantastic movie built out of shitty history. The acting is great all around and the visual skill of Ridley Scott’s resurrection of the glory and corruption of Rome elevates the movie above the flaws of the scripting and plot.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

“Dragons are partial to maiden sacrifices...I hear.”

So, thirty reviews in, we look at one of my favorite movies growing up in the 90s, 1996’s Dragonheart. Directed by Rob Cohen and featuring some of the most advanced CGI work after the landmark Jurassic Park dinosaurs, it was a family film about a knight and a dragon.

So in a 10th Century, generic European kingdom that is more or-less England, a King is killed during a peasant uprising and his heir is mortally wounded. The boy’s mother takes him to a cave where a dragon gives the lad half of his heart to keep him alive. Recovered, the young king clearly shows himself to be a douchebag, and his former mentor, a self-styled “knight of the old code” swears revenge on the dragon for corrupting the boy into evil. Twelve years later, the king is still a dickweed tyrant, a peasant girl begins seeking revenge on him, and the now-disillusioned knight works as a mercenary and dragonslayer until he comes across the last dragon alive. Got all that?

Bowen: Dennis Quaid plays the disillusioned hero Bowen. Former tutor to the prince/king, he blames dragons for his ex-pupil’s dickery, and goes on a bitter, genocidal rampage out of grief and revenge, which is great because not only does it give him a lot of room to develop an arc as a hero, but its also a nice take on the fallen knight premise. Instead of the whole “redemption equals death” thing that’s been done to, er, death in movies, we get a character being reminded that there’s something beyond petty revenge worth fighting for.

Einon: David Thewlis is the Villain, all grown up and powered by half of a dragon heart. A self-absorbed tyrant who rightfully thinks he’s invincible as long as he’s got that dragon heart beating in his chest. As far as tyrants go, he’s cold, cunning, vainglorious, usually emotionally detached from everything but capable of violent outbursts. He’s more interested in doing whatever he wants to do instead of running a kingdom, and is willing to let his lords do most of the day-to-day stuff however they see fit, since they know if they piss him off, their lives will become nasty, brutish and short.

Queen Aislinn: Veteran actress Julie Christie plays Einon’s mother, and a follower of the “old ways” She’s also shadowy and usually hiding something. After Einon’s mortal wound at the beginning of the film, it was her idea to take him to the dragon for healing. After the twelve year jump, she’s more or less decided that it was a bad idea letting her son live and starts to move against him. She also happens to hire some hilariously dressed dragonslayers as a “gift” for her son.

Draco: Sean Connery’s extra-manly voice is somehow extra-manlier when coming out of a 20ft long dragon. Draco is the last dragon, a status quo that Bowen had no small part in creating. Still, Draco’s just an old softie who doesn’t really want to fight anybody. He just wants to sit around being magical and impressing the hell out of human maidens. Draco’s extremely likable, but also has an air of tragedy around him since his fate is inextricably linked with that jerkass Einon’s.

Kara: Dina Meyer (from Starship Troopers) plays the fiery-haired and fiery-tempered peasant girl with an axe to grind against Einon. Her father was one of the leaders of the uprising that killed the king, and she herself (accidentally) caused the wound that got the whole plot rolling. Twelve years later, dad’s blinded and working in a quarry for Einon and then the king goes and shoots him with arrows because she asked him to release him from his misery. So yeah, she’s got a valid reason for wanting revenge. Eventually, she hooks up with Bowen & Draco to start up the rebellion and learns how to swing an axe around.

Lord Felton: Jason Isaacs (the British bad guy from The Patriot) plays a mustachioed and slightly foppish lord under Einon’s rule. A coward who often wears a silly hat, he’s more of an “idea man” for the king, such as when he comes up with a road tax.

Brok: Brian Thompson plays Einon’s big bruiser of a right-hand man. He’s big, and mean, and short-tempered and apparently likes falconry and that’s about the extent of his characterization because he has almost no screen time.

Brother Gilbert of Glockenspur: Pete Postlewaite (who’s been in a lot of stuff) turns in a great performance as the sheltered, over-eager scribe that’s mostly around to provide comic relief. His bright-eyed idealism contrasts greatly with Bowen’s jaded cynicism and is one of the characters who nudges Bowen along the road to redemption. After the rebellion starts up, Brother Gilbert picks up a bow and turns out to be a natural at it, leading the poor monk through his own mini-arc where he has to decide between helping good people fight bad people, and the whole “thou shalt not kill thing.” It’s a pleasant surprise that it pops up, and because its not done ironically tips Brother Gilbert over into my Badass of the Film over Bowen & Draco.

Rob Cohen, the director of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and xXx (the first one), does a rather good job of directing the film. The movie’s got a lightness to it, and the bright scenes, the abundance of daylight action scenes and so on all work in the movie’s favor. There aren’t many iconic scenes, but those that are work very well (and all involve Draco, not coincidentally). The Action scenes aren’t quite as good as they could be. The duel in the river between Bowen & Einon is okay. The big climactic battle is also just okay but small in scope and not particularly impressive (but at least it doesn’t have an Ewok Village). Its odd, considering Cohen’s a director who’s done quite a few action flicks, that the non-combat scenes are where the movie shines as opposed to the violence. That could just be me, though.

Now, how can I forget the two-ton dragon in the room? At the time, Jurassic Park realized CGI reptiles and set the standard, but Draco was the first time that the technology was used for a main character. It was crazy impressive at the time (yes, I saw it in theaters) and you know what? Its aged surprisingly well. Draco moves and looks real enough to keep the suspension of disbelief going strong. Draco was a technological triumph for ILM, particularly considering it was 1996.

Story by Patrick Read Johnson & Charles Edward Pogue. Characters talk like standard family-film fantasy people and Kara & Einon are largely stock characters. The pacing is largely fluid across its 103 minutes. On the surface, it seems like a fairly pedestrian kids’ film, but when you take a look at the plot, you realize it gets pretty heavy and dark in places. The stakes, while not particularly high on a socio-political level outside of one kingdom, are deadly serious for Draco, who’s worried about losing his soul as a result of Einon corrupting his gift. Bowen’s reluctance to be a hero again has him dancing on the borders of “asshole” quite a bit until they go to Avalon and he gets put in his place by the ghost of King Arthur (yes, really this is technically a King Arthur film in the very loosest sense). Characters die quite a bit. Draco and Bowen, after fighting to a standstill, come up with a brilliant scheme to scam villagers that usually ends with Draco catching a siege bolt and taking a dive into a lake (it’s a great scam while it lasts). The overall theme of the movie is about bearing sad witness to the passing of an age. That the movie still feels light and fluffy by the end is, I think, a credit to the filmmakers. Also, I don’t care if the Old Code sounds cheesy or not, I think its pretty badass.

Randy Edelman’s score continues the theme of lightness combined with an appropriate sense of ADVENTURE! There are many times when the music soars joyfully (well, its got a flying dragon after all). Its not bombastic, but then again, the movie isn’t either, and the soundtrack fits the tone perfectly. The main theme’s also been recycled by countless movie trailers and other bits.

Its quite a relief to look at Dragonheart once again and decide that yes, it is a worthy movie according to its own merits and I wasn’t just remembering it through rose-tinted nostalgia glasses because I thirteen at the time. Its not a perfect film, but what it gets right outweighs the bad, and it’s a great example of a family fantasy film that doesn’t have to be crushingly insipid. And, like other films I’d put in that category (Labyrinth and the first NeverEnding Story) its fun.

Now, the movie ends with some finality, but every now and then I hear rumors of a sequel existing. That’s just silly, because Draco was the last dragon, so of course those people must obviously be making things up when they tell me this or flip past the Sci-Fi channel and show me something they think is called Dragonheart: A New Beginning. What silliness.

Monday, August 10, 2009

“I think someone wants to talk about vampires.”

At last we reach the end of our current vampire slaying romp with Wesley Snipes. In 2004, series writer David S. Goyer stepped up to take the helm of the franchise for Blade Trinity. The film looked at is the “extended, unrated” cut on the DVD (if you care about that) which runs about 122 minutes. Let’s see how it stacks up to the first two.

A group of vampires seek out the great granddaddy of their race to try and put a stop to that pesky dhampir that keeps killing them. Before that can happen though, the vampires try and neutralize the Daywalker by setting him up to kill a mortal familiar of the vampires in a very public way to get the law breathing down his neck. Captured, our hero is rescued by a band of young vampire hunters called the Nightstalkers. Things escalate as both sides try and find some kind of “final solution” to the war between them.

Blade: Wesley Snipes plays the sociopathic half-vampire once more. While he still has the look and the movies for killing vampires and all that, some of that fire he had in the first two movies is missing. Maybe its because Blade is once again forced to work with a large team of characters that vie for the spotlight. Maybe its because he now plays the mentor figure to a young vampire slayer. He does get some cool lines (he gives a gravely “koochie-koo” to a baby he just rescued) as well as his only real emotional outburst in the entire trilogy after his safe house goes up in smoke along with his mentor. Its surprisingly effective as a character moment.

Whistler: Kris Kristofferson once more, but he doesn’t last very long in the film before he goes kablooey and dies again (for real this time. At least until they make another movie) when the feds storm Blade’s safe house. That’s a shame, since he doesn’t get much of a chance to be the surly badass we’ve come to know and love.

Danica Talos: Parker Posey is the more or less mastermind to put down Blade this time. A pretty, spoiled “rich bitch” its her idea to find the very first vampire so that he can take down Blade once and for all. She doesn’t do a bad job of things, but after the first two movies, she just doesn’t seem quite as interesting as the main villains of those films.

Asher Talos: Danica’s brother, played by Callum Keith Rennie. He’s…her brother, defers to her leadership…and that’s about it.

Jarko Grimwood: Paul Levesque, better known as Triple H, as Danica’s metal-fanged hulking enforcer with a pet Pomeranian. A vampire Pomeranian. Yes, he’s a wrestler, but he’s not bad as the bad guys’ big guy, gets some fun lines, and has a pretty cool brawl at the end of the film. Out of the villains, he seems to get the most mileage out of his characterization.

Abigail Whistler: Jessica Biel plays Whistler’s heretofore unknown illegitimate daughter, which works about as well as it sounds like it should. After Whistler’s death, Blade takes her under his wing, since she’s the last legacy of his dead mentor. She’s pretty good in a fight and really good with a compound bow (which, having taken archery as a kid, I find Jessica Biel drawing back a bow extraordinarily hot). Sadly, she doesn’t get a whole lot of good dialog and the whole “Whistler’s unknown daughter that he trained in vampire slaying but never once thought to mention to his star pupil” thing just doesn’t work out. Also, the movie loves the idea that she loads up her iPod (product placement!) with music for when she hunts. Its not a very good slot for a character trait, but the film keeps trying to hammer home how badass it is when she puts the earbuds in, like shit’s about to get real. Its…very difficult to take that seriously.

Hannibal King: Ryan Reynolds pretty much steals the show here as the smartassed former familiar and ex-boyfriend of Danica Talos. The character was drawn from the comics, but I don’t think that that version of King was as cavalier with the quips. Regardless, he gets the best dialog, does the best delivery, and chews every scene he’s in. Easily the best character in the movie, he gets major badass points for intentionally pissing off Blade at every chance, wearing a bull’s-eye on the back of his bullet proof vest (and a tasteful “Hello, my name is Fuck You” on the front), and for endlessly taunting the vampires when he gets injured, and later captured. Rather than break or stay silent, he just keeps jawing off to his ex, no matter how many times he gets smacked around.

Drake: Dominic Purcell (the guy from Prison Break) is the first vampire, the one people called Dracula and so on. An ancient evil, dug up in the Fertile Crescent to solve the problem of Blade, he’s a rather disappointing character, largely on account of being a jumble of things. He’s an ancient shape shifter, has a mouth that can open up like the reapers in the second film, and can walk around in daylight without ill effects (which, okay, Bram Stoker’s Dracula could do that). He’s also presented as a kind of uber-predator and a proud warrior guy at the same time, and for some reason the first vampire’s natural form is a demonic, chitinous cousin to that dude from Legend. I have a problem with this, since the second movie clearly established that vampirism in this series was some kind of virus. What virus mutates a human into a chitin-armored demon shape shifter??? It doesn’t make sense. We’ve had one writer for the entire trilogy, so I mean, what was he thinking when it came to that? Was it supposed to look cool and imposing? Was it studio meddling? Anyway, Drake gets one pretty cool scene where he’s wandering around town and enters something like an independent Hot Topic that stocks nothing but Dracula merchandise (Dracola, Drac plushies, Drac vibrators). Watching him stare in absolute confusion at all the bizarre merch they made out of his name was pretty funny.

Hedges: Comedian Patton Oswalt, the guy who voiced the main character in Ratatouille, is the replacement tech guy and, well, he’s a pale shadow of Whistler. Hell, he’s even a pale shadow of the chain smoking Scud.

Sommerfield: So, the nerdy brains of the Nightstalkers, the one who comes up with some kind of genetic bomb to kill vampires is a blind woman with a little kid named Zoe. This wouldn’t be a bad thing necessarily, except the Nightstalkers also never bothered to think that perhaps putting the blind woman on monitor duty might not be the best idea. Also, I think she wears high heels at some point near the end, which, I don’t want to sound insensitive, doesn’t sound like a safe footwear choice for a blind person trying to find out if there’s an intruder in the place… Well, you get the point. Basically her death is there to give Abigail’s character a traumatic rude awakening and fuel her desire for vengeance.

Dr. Edgar Vance: A psychologist who examines Blade after the cops catch him. Its actually a pretty funny scene since it goes about as well you’d think, and the guy voiced Mentok, the Mind Taker on Harvey Birdman. Just thought I’d share.

Let’s see, the special effects are largely good. Dying vampires are more incendiary than in the last film, the reaper-faced dogs are well done, and that cool but impractical UV arc thing is suitably cool and useful in exactly two combat situations. Drake’s true form isn’t very good. The full body costume is okay for what it is, but just that. This is supposed to be the Big Bad Vampire, the cloth from which all other bloodsuckers are supposedly cut, and its not impressive and difficult to take seriously.

For a directorial debut, David Goyer has some good things going and some bad things. The good includes being pretty good at framing a shot, letting the action scenes speak for themselves without an over reliance on quick cuts and close ups. The lighting isn’t anything terrible, but nor is it nearly as atmospheric as the first two films.

The worst thing the film does visually is the preposterous number of slow motion slowdowns. While the fight scenes largely avoid that nonsense, you could easily make a drinking game out of this movie whenever a character jumps, is running or whatever other scene the filmmakers feel needs extra DRAMA. You could probably shave off a few minutes of film if the slow-mo stuff was removed. Occasional slow-mo is okay, using it this much knocks you out of the suspension of disbelief.

It wouldn’t be a Blade movie without David Goyer writing the script. Credit is again given to Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan for creating the Daywalker. It still feels like a Blade movie, but, well, something’s wrong. The second movie bordered on the line of “too many characters to juggle,” but that was mostly the Bloodpack, and most of them died in action anyway. This one pretty much replaces the Bloodpack with the Nightstalkers, but the support team gets, depending on your mood, either not enough time to endear you to them, or too much time on screen which sucks away development of more important characters. Interestingly, the “Nightstalkers” themselves were an actual team in comics in the early 90s featuring a trio of Blade, Hannibal King and some guy named Frank Drake. The movie version works better as a power trio. Whistler getting killed off for real this time doesn’t really have any bearing on the plot, its just an excuse for Blade to “need” the new kids, and to give Abigail some gravitas.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some interesting ideas presented. The vampire “final solution” is just creepy when you think about it (and see it). Watching Blade interact unsuccessfully with human society is a nicely done way to show you just how outside the normal he is. The network of vampire slayers laying low across the world in little cells fighting a guerilla war in the shadows is also kind of cool. There’s definitely some fun stuff in there, but the whole doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.

Music’s appropriate and good for what its supposed to do here. Original music by Ramin Djawadi and the RZA, along with yet more hip-hop and techno that helps drive action scenes forward.

Blade Trinity is, in the final estimation, nowhere near as good as the first two. Its still fun, but filmmaking and storytelling choices show that the franchise is losing steam. It doesn’t run out of gas, but by the end, I realized that, while we’ve had our fun with these movies, and much fun was indeed had, its time is passed, Blade’s story is told, let’s move on, before the franchise loses all footing and slips down the slippery slope of franchise decay.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

“You've been training for two years to take me out, and now here I am. Whew! Ooh, so exciting, isn't it?”

Well fina-damn-ly. Its time to take a look at 2002’s Blade II, a sequel to Blade (obviously) but this time, Guillermo del Toro was behind the helm, steering the vampire slaying ship toward Eastern Europe and giving audiences a closer look at the political machinations of the vampire world. Contextually, this movie comes after the debuts of some high profile comic book movies like X-Men and Spider-Man, and Marvel was much less shy about having their logo planted on the film. It didn’t hurt that del Toro is himself an unabashed comics fan either.

After tracking down the not-quite-dead body of his mentor in Prague, a vampire slayer gets a curious offer of temporary alliance when the vampires that oppose him face a new strain of bloodsucker that feeds on human and vampire alike. Sounds like a simple vehicle for our hero to kill Euro-trash vampires, right? Well…the third act throws a lot of twists at the audience that throw things into a more…dynastic light.

Blade: Wesley Snipes is once more the sunglasses wearing, heroically sociopathic dhampir. Blade finds himself in an awkward position when the Vampire Nation offers a truce. Of course he doesn’t trust the bastards and at various points displays an incredible level of magnificent bastardness that reminds everyone why he’s a bogeyman for vampires across the world. Blade is also a lot quicker with the quips in this film, throwing out one-liners with a disturbing smile (considering the character). He even gets some tender moments when he finds his mentor, Whistler and with Nyssa at the end. Easily this film’s Badass for his level of contingency planning (and for attaching a bomb to the back of a guy’s head).

Whistler: Kris Kristofferson returns as Blade’s crotchety- Wait. Didn’t he die in the last movie? He did. Or DID he???? Apparently the Vampire Nation got a hold of him and kept him in a weird state of life/undeath so they could torture him and use him as bait to lure Blade to Prague so he could take care of their reaper problem. He’s still a badass in this film, and actually manages to be even surlier than before (coming back from the dead will do that to you), but doesn’t get as much time to shine what with all the other characters populating the screen. The movie also dangles the idea that he might be a traitor to the cause because of his mysterious disappearances, but you never really get the feel that he actually would betray Blade.

Scud: Norman Reedus (one of the McManus brothers from The Boondock Saints) is Blade’s replacement Whistler. He’s a tech-head with an eye for making vampire-killing gear and vies with Whistler for surly one-liners.

Damaskinos: One of (if not the) Grand Poobahs of the Vampire Nation, he’s a frail, positively ancient bloodsucker geezer that recruits Blade to eliminate the reaper-strain of vampires, since, well, after the new guys finish off the vamps, who else will they turn to for food? He’s just…creepy, but you realize that a vampire like that doesn’t get ancient without good reason, and there’s more to Damaskinos than he lets on.

Nyssa: Chilean actress Leonor Varela is Damaskinos’ daughter, she’s sent to recruit Blade for the job, and the two kind of, sort of bond despite being on opposite sides of the war. He’s a Daywalker bent on slaying them, she’s the leader of a black-ops vampire team called the Bloodpack trained to take him down. You bet there’s a bit of sexual tension. Speaking of the Bloodpack…

Reinhardt: Ron Perlman is easily the most competent of the Pack, a shades wearing, almost totally bald shotgun toting badass who doesn’t hide the fact that he really doesn’t like Blade. He’s definitely a villain, but the question is, who’s he working for, really?

Asad: The other vampire sent with Nyssa to recruit Blade (and something like a lieutenant for her), he’s played by Danny John-Jules, who voiced one of the Fierys in Labyrinth and apparently played Cat (an evolved human-shaped cat) on TV’s Red Dwarf.

Priest: Tony Curran (who was the redheaded, non-tattooed Viking in The 13th Warrior who made it all the way through the film) isn’t in the film much. He’s a pro-pureblood vampire, ready and willing to slaughter turned vampires. He’s the first of the Bloodpack to fall to the reapers, but not without a fight.

Chupa: Matthew Schulze is one of the bigger vampires (and wearing a chain mail shirt for a while). He shares Reinhardt’s sentiments about working with the Daywalker. He gets really pissed about Priest’s death. Actually, he gets pissed about a lot of stuff easily. He’s the easily pissed off one.

Snowman: Big name martial artist/actor Donnie Yen is the silent, katana wielding member of the Bloodpack. Sadly, aside from one pretty cool fight scene, he doesn’t get a whole lot to do in the film.

Lighthammer: Daz Crawford plays the big, largely silent, Maori-face tattooed big guy of the Bloodpack. He’s got a big honkin’ hammer that looks anything but light. Sadly, he’s a case of wasted potential as he’s not nearly as badass as you would hope.

Verlane: Marit Velle Kile is the redheaded vampire who’s the lover of Lighthammer. Aside from one complication near the end of the second act, that’s about as far as her character goes.

Jared Nomak: Oh yeah, the bad guy (well, the bad guy who’s the most urgent threat). Luke Goss’ Nomak looks like a homeless bald guy, which isn’t very scary, until his face opens up like the Predator and he starts killing vampires that turn into other reapers. He’s apparently a carrier for the reaper strain, a mutation of vampirism (which is now referred to as a virus, so in the Blade universe, vampirism is a biological, not mystical condition). The hunger is particularly nasty for reapers. They need blood like junkies need a hit, and he can feed off of vampires as well as humans, the side effect being that vampires killed this way turn into reapers themselves. Unlike Nomak himself, the regular reapers are more zombie-like (fast zombie that is) in their behavior (and lack of coherent speech) and they’re pretty damn creepy when you see them swarming through a suspiciously large, old world sewer at the heroes. However, as the movie progresses, there’s more to Nomak than what’s initially presented, and allows for some tragic elements into his characterization.

Guillermo del Toro is a damn good director, no doubt about that. His shots are well lit, staged and framed, but its also clear that Blade II looks different from the first one. For one thing, the Prague underworld is much more colorful than New York in the movie, and the overarching visual sense of the characters’ isolation isn’t present (probably due in part to the sheer number of characters on screen). Its certainly not a bad thing, and I like what del Toro has done with shooting this movie, but, I really liked that stark, isolated look from the first movie because, in a way, it provided most of the character subtext for Blade.

That said, the visual effects are a huge step forward from the first movie. The reapers are just creepy in their design (and well realized), the movie is particularly gory and squicky in places, and as vampires die, they ignite before turning to ash this time around. The CGI has improved quite a bit, though some of the fight scenes use computer graphics to substitute for actual actors. Those scenes aren’t bad or badly done, but you can tell that the figures are slightly off in those parts.

Action scenes are well done, generally well shot and provide nice visuals. Blade fighting two vampire ninjas against a wall of UV lights is a groovy idea but unfortunately, the CGI “stuntmen” are a little too obvious. The final battle with Nomak is brutal, and the shootout in the sewer is full of that “how the hell are they gonna get out of this?” that caps off the second act nicely. Oddly enough, the only times the movie really goes for more closeups and quick cuts are when Blade fights Nomak.

David S. Goyer once again behind the keyboard, though the movie also credits Blade’s creators Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan (two well known names in comics) for, um, creating Blade. Anyway, the writing is pretty good. The first movie stayed on its rails until the plot reached the station, but here Goyer adds in intrigue and at least three twists by the end of the film. One of the twists is just kind of tossed in for the hell of it with no foreshadowing, but the other two parts are handled better. Dialog is good, no complaints there. Unfortunately, most of the Bloodpack only have a scene or two to stand out from the background. They don’t really feel like the credible, well-trained unit we’re told they are. Instead, most of them feel like throwaway fodder with an occasional gimmick (poor, poor Lighthammer).

The original score by Marco Beltrami and Danny Saber peeks its head up from the ambient background for a couple very good moments. In that, its superior to the previous movie’s. The commercial soundtrack of techno and hip-hop continues to be appropriate for action scenes and ass whoopin.’

Blade II is, once more, a solid action movie. It introduces more characters and a few plot twists that mostly work without overflowing the basic idea of “Blade kills Vampires a lot” with a bloated, ponderous movie. Its not quite as streamlined as the first movie, but its by no means bad, and I found myself sitting there watching going “you know what? I like this franchise. These are fun to watch movies.” When you boil it down away from my verbose penchant for pretentious superlatives and thirty dollar words, that’s the whole point of a movie, right?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

“Some people are worse than children.”

I normally hate watching movies on television because they are inadvertently edited to pieces and are punctuated by commercial breaks. However, there is one holdout in cable-land that does neither of these things: the laudatory Turner Classic Movies. TCM, unlike other channels under the Turner umbrella, stands alone as solely dedicated to its mission of providing classic and older films to audiences without commercial interruption. Its truly fantastic, and a rarity in modern television. I say this, because instead of reviewing Blade II like I would very much like to get to, I have to put that on hold once more so that I can talk about Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday in English), a 1953 black & white French film by Jaques Tati, a comedian who has had a profound influence on “tall comedians” like John Cleese, John Lithgow and Rowan Atkinson.

A pipe-smoking, easily distracted man with a car on the verge of collapse travels to a seaside resort for holiday. Various spurts of mayhem and hilarity ensue for the next 114 minutes as the character bumbles along through various situations. It’s a thin plot with a very slow burn of the action, as the spotlight shines on various minor characters having strange things done to them/doing them, but then it always seems to come back to the main character.

Monsieur Hulot: Jacques Tati is the mostly silent, bumbling Hulot, who’s misadventures on vacation provide a very clear spiritual ancestor to Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character and a spiritual successor to Charlie Chaplin and even Buster Keaton. That’s kind of badass to bridge those eras of comedy. Hulot relies on a lot of physical comedy to convey his personality as a character who is somewhat childlike, bumbling and oblivious to the world around him. It isn’t so much that bad things happen to him, but that he inadvertently sets up the bad things that will happen to him. His car is a piece of junk that gets people in a lot of trouble.

Martine: Nathalie Pascaud is a beautiful, tennis loving young woman whom Hulot takes a bit of a liking too and eventually dances with near the end.

The Englishwoman: Valentine Camax is an older British lady who officiates a tennis match where Hulot, completely ignorant on how to play properly, completely destroys everyone he plays. She befriends Hulot because of that.

The Waiter: Raymond Carl is the waiter at the hotel restaurant, a typical somewhat snooty French waiter. He’s not a big fan of anybody.

The Hotel Proprietor: Lucien Fregis is the owner of the hotel, and it becomes clear that he really doesn’t like Hulot, often becoming distracted into sight gags by Hulot’s presence. He gets a fantastic visual gag where he drops a cigarette into a fish tank by accident, rolls up his right sleeve to retrieve it, is distracted by Hulot for a moment, then reaches his left arm into the tank.

Jacques Tati directed the film, and it is a very different kind of comedy. A very subdued kind of comedy. The jokes aren’t laff-a-minute fare common in America. Instead, subtle cues and reactions lead up to and punctuate the outbursts of physical comedy. For instance, a woman is trying to cross a street. Hulot, in his car, stops and waves her across. She crosses and passes off screen, then you hear a loud honking and then see the woman sprinting down the street at top speed, quickly followed by a large bus. Its hilarious, but subtle. You have to be paying attention to everything going on to be rewarded, but the jokes are there. This isn’t to say that there aren’t obvious sight gags. There’s plenty of that. Hulot, in a broken canoe, tries rowing for a little bit, but the whole thing folds up in two with him in it. As he floats to shore in his boat sandwich, his struggles to get out move the top of the boat like a mouth and the people on shore run away, screaming that it’s a shark. You can also see how much of the film owes itself to the Silent Film era, particularly at the end when Hulot lights a match in a shed filled with fireworks. He scrambles around, trying to put them out (or at least not explode himself) and the whole thing spirals out of control.

Tati is also a very good director, framing scenes smartly and even giving a sense of isolation to not only Hulot, but also the other vacationers.

There is very little dialog in the film. You could turn the sound off and not miss a thing in terms of dialog. The pacing, particularly in the beginning, is a little bit off, as the story leisurely wanders from character to character, but it never fails to refocus on Hulot. The team of Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet definitely opt for a “less is more” approach to characterization.

Sound is critical to this film, not only because so much of the humor depends on it, but also because the mood does as well. The score by Alain Romans is sparse and almost minimal. There is one theme that gets repeated constantly, a jazzy little number that often interrupts the quiet goings on of the regular guests. Even more important is the foley work. Hulot’s car can be heard coming a mile away as it putters around. The door of the hotel restaurant has a very distinct and, well, goofy sound effect used whenever it swings open and closed that contrasts with the stuffy nature of the waiter. As much as the film owes to silent film for visual gags, it makes full use of sound to speak more than dialog could in the same circumstances.

This little film took me completely by surprise. The slow beginning was just off-beat enough to keep me sitting around, and the eventual payoff was thoroughly enjoyable. Its probably not something that would appeal to all the masses, but for cinephiles, it’s an interesting slice of foreign comedy made by someone who knew what he was doing that’s surprisingly charming by the end. Tati’s Mr. Hulot character wound up starring in a bunch of other films, and I might just have to look those up eventually. Recommended, with the caveat that it’s a foreign film with different pacing sensibilities to what a casual film viewer would be looking for. If you’re okay with that, there’s a surprising level of subtle craftsmanship waiting for you.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

“I am Shiva the Destroyer, your harbinger of doom this evening.”

For the Shawshank review, I mentioned that I don’t normally go for Oscar-bait dramas. After reading that, a friend insisted that I sit down at watch 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, because it is chock full of DRAMA. It also has Anne Hathaway in it, who is an actress that I rather like (and not just because she’s gorgeous).

So a young woman who’s in drug rehab comes home to her dad’s house in Connecticut to take part in her sister’s wedding. DRAMA ensues for the next 113 minutes. That’s pretty much the basic plot. Take a wedding, and a recovering junkie and watch the sparks fly as you realize just how dysfunctional their family is.

Kym: Anne Hathaway is just about the cutest recovering addict I’ve seen on screen. As a character, she’s probably the most interesting out of the bunch, and its interesting watching the movie pull back the layers on her until you realize what went so very wrong in her past that made her the defensive, snarky wet blanket that she is during the wedding preparations. It’s a credit to Hathaway’s acting chops that she’s able to do all of that and making her neither a complete bitch or a total mary sue. Instead, she’s a somewhat likable flawed character who still has a long way to go as far as getting back on her feet.

Rachel: Rosemarie DeWitt is the titular Rachel who is getting married. Seeing as we the audience started the film attached to Kym, Rachel is in the unenviable position of competing with the audience’s sympathy when the two start cat fighting. Sure, she’s not a recovering addict with a guilt complex, and yes, the wedding is all about her and all, but damn does she get all passive-aggressive bitchy about things at times. Its hard to like her sometimes, especially since she feeds the DRAMA fire just as much as Kym does.

Paul: Rachel & Kym’s dad. He comes across as a rather likable guy who’s very protective of his troubled daughter, but he’s also got some stuff bubbling under the surface that is only peeked at a handful of times. He’s one of the funnier characters, being a “goofy dad” character, but he’s got a sadness to him that makes him likable and sympathetic. What the hell, he’s this film’s badass because he’s got the unenviable task of keeping this wedding on track despite the DRAMA.

Sidney: Rachel’s groom. He’s apparently a musician of some kind and comes across as a nice enough guy, but since this is a wedding movie, he’s an inconsequential figure because he doesn’t have any DRAMA to speak off.

Kieran: One of Sidney’s friends from Hawaii in town for the wedding. He’s also a recovering addict and bonds with Kym (nudge nudge, wink wink) before the festivities since he knows how tough rehab can be. After that initial bonding (hur hur) between the two, he kind of gets sidelined for the duration of the movie.

The director, Jonathan Demme, uses a documentary style of camera work, going for the shakiness of a handheld camera following the characters around. I’m not a big fan of obvious camera shake throughout a movie, but I can acknowledge the story conceit of it. HOWEVER, the movie itself shatters that conceit by placing the camera in various positions where it would be either ridiculous or impossible for an actual cameraman to be. Example A: at one point early on, Kym is walking into an upstairs room alone. The lighting is dim and dramatic, and the camera follows her in its normal handheld way. The only problem is that the camera is being carried along at ground level looking up at her. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good atmospheric shot, but on the other, why would a guy at a wedding party be doing that sort of thing when the normal impulse would be to carry the camera at normal height. Example B: Kym drives a car off the road (at slow speed) and into some foliage. The camera starts off in the passenger side as she hits (nothing wrong with that) but then immediately after the airbag goes off, the camera cuts to a front view of the car as the headlights are turned off. Yes its dramatic, but the conceit is that there is a cameraman following her at all times. How could he have gotten out of the car that quickly to get a shot of the lights turning off that quickly without magical powers? Moreover, how could he be that much of an asshole to run out of the car for a dramatic shot without checking on the driver’s safety in the first place? Moreover, wouldn’t the camera guy be injured or perhaps thrown through the windshield himself at the impact? Its that kind of documentary-style,-but-not-really thing that bugged the hell out of me during the movie. Shooting it as a documentary (like Spinal Tap) would be one thing, but doing all those kinds of normal filmmaking techniques makes me ask why they didn’t just use a steadi cam and be done with it instead of interrupting the willful suspension of disbelief?

The script by Jenny Lumet is largely pretty good for the DRAMA it contains. Characters have unique voices and the dialog sounds like real and plausible things that characters would. However, the pacing of the whole thing is all over the place. A lot of scenes just drag on forever and ever, outliving their purpose. The Wedding Rehearsal Dinner scene, where a couple important character have length speeches, then Kym gives a bizarre, awkward speech that is full of character building, and then the scene continues onward with characters that are tangentially relevant to the plot giving not short speeches and I’m sitting there thinking, why? The scene has already taken care of the plot points. If I wanted to subject myself to the often long boring stretches between interesting stuff, I’d look to real life.

And speaking of odd things, the whole wedding atmosphere of the movie is really weird. Who has their rehearsal dinner two nights before the actual wedding? Why in God’s name are all of the musical performers moved into the house for the weekend like a band of gypsies? Are there no hotels in Connecticut? And what’s with the theme of the wedding? There’s one guy that looks like a Hare Krishna, two of the musicians look (and play) like High School battle of the bands contestants that got eliminated early on, the rest of the musicians wandering the grounds look (and play) like a band of wandering minstrels (they had at least one lute). I wanted to shout huzzah at them every time I spotted one. I realize they may do things differently in rich, white, liberal Connecticut, but it would’ve been great if one of Sidney’s family members (Sidney’s black, by the way) commenting on just how weird the white folks were. (I mean, Connecticut isn’t exactly known for its racial diversity).
Minstrels, battle of the bands kids, various other weird musicians littering the yard like performers on the streets of Quebec City outside the Chateau Frontenac (an unexpected analogy, I admit, but one that I can use from experience). Despite the obviously eclectic nature of that, the only really memorable elements were the appropriately moody strings, which often jumped to frenetic.

This film ultimately left me with a great big “meh.” Anne Hathaway’s performance (and a few side characters) carried the film for me. The often sluggish pacing, borderline pretentious camera choices, and the sometimes forcefully applied “This is a DRAMA, so have some MORE DRAMA!” scenes didn’t appeal to me. Its not a bad film by any means, but there’s a hollowness to it that I can’t place my finger on. I realize that this is probably a case of “your mileage may vary” but as it stands, I’m not going to truly recommend this film (aside from Hathaway’s performance).