Monday, November 30, 2009

“We are legion. The time of our return is coming. Our numbers will darken the sky of every world.”

I’m throwing a wrench into things for this update. Call it experimentation, call it whimsy, call it an excuse for me to nerd out, call it jumping the shark, but I’m going to, on occasion, discuss video games as well here.

No, wait! Come back!

Look, there are perfectly good reasons to look at video games, particularly modern ones, as a legitimate medium of visual storytelling. Graphics have increased to a level where they can almost compete with top level CGI productions (and completely blow away bottom level ones) and the medium can simulate decisions and consequences in ways that a 90 minute film can’t. As video gaming in general emerges from the basement of the antisocial (everybody’s heard of Mario and Halo's a pretty cool guy who kills aleins and doesn't afraid of anybody), developers, particularly ones interested in interactive fiction have made some absolutely fantastic games that blur the lines between simply killing the hell out of things and “choose your own adventure” style storytelling. Officially it’s a “role-playing game” but here, interactive story is more appropriate. An interactive story where you can kill bad guys and level up. Canadian developer Bioware has been making these kinds of games since the early 90s, and their 2007 opus, Mass Effect definitely counts. Originally released for the Xbox 360, its also available on PC, and it’s a big story.

Okay, so in 2148, humanity discovered ancient ruins on Mars left behind by an extinct civilization called the Protheans, who used advanced technology based around mass accelerators and a fictional substance called “element zero.” This discovery jumped human tech forward 200 years and facilitated rapid colonization across the stars, eventually leading to contact (and a brief war) with other alien species. Eventually making peace with them and joining up with these so called “Council Races” humanity is now the new kid on the galactic block, looking to earn its place among the rest of the aliens who run civilized space. And that’s all backstory.

The main character is a human marine in the Earth Systems Alliance Navy and a candidate to be the first human being allowed into the Spectres, a group of elite, independent agents who are “the right hand of the Council” (basically commandos, diplomats and wetwork agents rolled into one). An evaluation mission to a human colony to recover a Prothean artifact goes sour when another Spectre, an alien named Saren shows up with an army of sentient robots and blitzes the colony to get access to the beacon. You survive, but the beacon gets destroyed and a lot of people die in the raid. The Council is not happy with you, but they’re also not happy that one of their most decorated Spectres might’ve gone rogue. What follows is a big, big storyline where you have to earn your way into the Spectres, prove Saren’s a traitor, chase his trail across several alien worlds and discover that what he’s trying to accomplish threatens all organic life in the galaxy. No pressure, Commander.

Commander Shepard: This is you. You is a very flexible concept. You can be male or female, have access to multiple character backgrounds and military records you can be and have six combat classes to choose from. For instance, you can be an orphan from Earth who’s an infiltrator (sniper) with a ruthless reputation, or you can be a space-born engineer who single-handedly held off an enemy invasion on a colony world. These aren’t just for flavor, they affect side quests and how some characters talk to you. Even more capable of shaping your character are your decisions during the game. Sometimes you get access to “Paragon” or “Renegade” dialog options where you can affect outcomes. Taken to their purest forms, you can either build yourself into a full paragon “Captain America in space” character or a completely ruthless asshole. Either way, you still have to save the universe. Voiced by Mark Meer (male) or Jennifer Hale (female)

Captain David Anderson: The ever awesome Keith David is the badass human captain of the SSV Normandy an experimental, high performance frigate that is your vehicle of choice for hopping around the galaxy. He’s a respected veteran in the Alliance Navy and has some history with Saren.

Jeff “Joker” Moreau: Seth Green is the snarky, smartassed hotshot pilot of the Normandy. You eventually find out why he’s never seen outside of his pilot’s seat.

Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko: Raphael Sbarge voices a human biotic in the Alliance military. Biotics are people with modified genetics that can affect mass fields using their minds. Essentially a telekinetic engineer, Kaiden’s a quiet fellow who’s mentally stable as far as early biotics go, he only gets migraines instead of “the crazy.”

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams: Kimberly Brooks voices a human marine that your squad rescues/picks up on Eden Prime, the site of the mission where the beacon gets blowed up. A career soldier with a long family history of service to the Alliance, she’s not exactly trusting of the aliens, but later reveals a surprising amount of depth for a “run and gun ooh-rah” soldier. A great, solid, ass kicking female character. (and yes, her name is a shout out to Evil Dead)

Garrus Vakarian: Brandon Keener voices the Turian (one of the major alien races) you recruit on the Citadel (basically the Capital of Space), he’s a cowboy cop who knows Saren’s crooked and tags along with you to dispense some justice. Depending on how you play, you can either help him decide to be renegade or paragon himself. He’s also a crack shot with a sniper rifle if you level him up right.

Urdnott Wrex: Steven Barr voices the game’s biggest badass, a Krogan “Battlemaster” who’s a tough mother of an alien that can destroy people with biotics and is a tank with a shotgun. Krogans are a reptillian/amphibian like race of warriors and mercenaries (think Battletoads with shotguns and the ability to affect mass fields with their minds and you’re on the right track) who are dying out thanks to a genophage they’ve been infected with that has lowered their birth rate to almost nil. Wrex’s real charm is in his old soldier attitude and general willingness to do very bad things to get the job done.

Tali’Zorah nar Rayya: Liz Sroka voices Tali, a Quarian engineer that you pick up along the way who has evidence implicating Saren. Quarians are a mysterious species that aren’t trusted much after they created a race of machine servants called the Geth that developed sentience and went murderously rogue. Tali herself is on a pilgrimage, a coming of age journey away from her people to bring back something interesting/useful. Sort of like traveling to Europe to find yourself after college. She’s also the only female member of your party that you can’t romance, leaving many fans…frustrated (think of it this way, she’s got the personality of Kaylee from Firefly but has to wear a hermetically sealed sterile suit at all times in the rest of the galaxy because Quarians have basically no immune systems).

Dr. Liara T’Soni: Ali Hillis voices an Asari scientist that you recruit. She’s young for one of her race (blue skinned, human-like mono-gendered alien space babes that can live for thousands of years). She’s not really skilled in social interaction, and she’s also somewhat naïve, but damn are her biotics powerful.

Admiral Steven Hackett: Lance Henriksen is the commander of the Alliance Fifth Fleet and exists only as a faceless voice. Most of the game you think he’s a minor character, just calling you up from time to time to give you side missions, but even this minor character’s important, because by the end, **Spoilers**the entire goddamn Fifth Fleet is the cavalry that comes screaming in to give Sheppard a hand in wrecking the bad guys’ shit. As far as cutscenes go in video games, its one of the rare moments where I’ve jump off my couch and shouted “Fuck Yeah!” at the TV. **End Spoilers** Not bad for a character who exists only as a voice.

Saren Arterius: Fred Tatasciore voices the Bad Guy that you chase across the galaxy. He’s a Turian Spectre that doesn’t like humans, but he’s also planning something. Something big. Something bad. Something that threatens the entire galaxy and all civilization in it. To help him, he’s got an army of Geth, synthetic life forms (genuine artificial intelligences in the Mass Effect universe are illegal because they always tend to take the “kill all organics” approach to politics: case in point, the Geth) that worship him as a kind of prophet. He’s also got an Asari Matriarch (a very, very powerful biotic) named Benezia (Marina Sirtis) as his lieutenant (she’s also Liara’s mother). Saren’s a bad, bad dude and a great villain.

Well, uh, there are a lot of people involved in the production of a video game, but the project director was Casey Hudson. The visual style of the game is simply incredible. Enormously cinematic with fantastically well thought out technology, aliens and structures, the visual immersion is staggering in its quality. Gameplay is also quite fun (its an over-the-shoulder shooter in real-time, itself an exception to standard RPG conventions) though not quite perfect. Elevator rides are notoriously long loading screens and a lot of the exploration of less important planets can feel a little redundant visually as you drive the Mako over rocky expanses over and over (the Mako itself is a love-it-or-hate-it vehicle. Its either a ungainly truck that handles like a lobster trying to ice skate or it’s a tenacious mountain goat that can conquer the tallest mountain). But overall, the experience of playing the game is addictively satisfying.

Lots of writers for this one. Drew Karpyshyn, Lukas Kristjanson, Mike Laidlaw, Chris L’Etoile, Mac Walters and Patrick Weekes have collectively created a sprawling, insanely detailed and well-thought out universe. There is an in-game codex you can look up and find explanations for every race, group and technology you can encounter. They even explain why you never run out of ammo. And it makes sense in context. Every single planet you can scan in your travels has a paragraph written up about it, even the ones you can’t land on and provide nothing more than story flavor. The way they explain space travel is also fantastic. Instead of something like a warp drive or light speed, the spacecraft in the game use Mass Relays to travel across the galaxy. Mass Relays are basically giant rail guns that fire ships to other Mass Relays. Let me repeat: the game has Rail Guns. That fire. Space ships.

Dialog in the game is also fantastic, which is a good thing, because there is A LOT of it. Many of the conversations you can have provide options for renegade answers, which can be hilariously sociopathic. For example, you can make Shepard call one of the floating, alien Hanar a “big, stupid jellyfish.” (which is exactly what it looks like). Consequences of your actions are also fantastically well thought out, but I’m not going to mention any of those because they’re all spoilers.

The original music by Jack Wall & Sam Hulick is of an equivalent quality level as the rest of the game, which is good. Sweeping and action oriented, the score mixes real instruments with electronic touches and works brilliantly for the genre.

Now, I haven’t exactly gone on about gameplay and so on because that’s not how we roll here at RMWC. However, based solely on the merits of the story and presentation alone, the game is absolutely fantastic and a brilliant example of the “gaming as storytelling” medium at its finest. Mass Effect is unquestionably recommended if in-depth video games are your thing, especially since the sequel is coming out in early 2010.

Oh Wrex, you card.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

“Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don't share their power with mankind.”

You thought I was done with Superman?

The Superman franchise whimpered to a halt with the fourth installment. Development Hell ensued for nearly twenty years before Superman returned to the big screen. 2006’s Superman Returns from director Bryan Singer quietly ignored the events of Superman III and IV and brought a big budget, sweeping approach to the character. So why does nobody talk about it much?

Superman returns (wow, couldn’t go one sentence without a title drop) to Earth after a five year wild goose chase to find the exploded planet Krypton. He finds a world that’s gotten along pretty fine without Superman, including Lois Lane, who’s got a fiancée and a five year old. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor and his surprisingly competent henchmen hatch a land grab scheme involving Kryptonian technology that could kill billions.

Superman/Clark Kent: Brandon Routh takes over in the big blue tights, and he does a pretty good job. He looks the part, he’s got the voice, and he’s got that idealistic charm that worked well for Reeve. His readjustment to life on Earth is very well done, especially in finding out Lois has moved on from him (then again, after all he’s done to her in the original movies, I can’t blame her). He plays Superman as a more sympathetic, less dickish hero than the Reeve Superman was written as, and there lies the conundrum of the movie. He’s trying to emulate and make up for the shortcomings of Reeve’s Superman while not really making the character his own.

Lois Lane: Kate Bosworth is Superman’s ex-girlfriend, and the character has gone through a rather bitter period of not liking Superman for just up and leaving Earth for five years without even saying goodbye, which…is actually a really good reason to be pissed at him. Of course, Superman’s return (there it is again) shakes up her whole world, just as she was settling down to raise a family. Its interesting stuff what they do with her, but Lois just doesn’t seem to work right in this movie. She seems pretty oblivious to danger, especially when she picks up her kid from school on her way to receive her Pulitzer, so what does she do? She goes to a mysterious address that has some connection to a massive EMP blast that temporarily knocked out the Eastern Seaboard and takes her kid onto a suspicious boat to investigate (forgetting her cell phone in the car) so that they can both be captured. This is more than parental negligence, this is a textbook example of Plot Induced Stupidity. There’s also that little bit of “spitfire” missing from Bosworth’s Lois that Margot Kidder brought to the role too.

Perry White: Frank Langella (Who’s been all sorts of screen villains, from a 1970s Dracula to live-action Skeletor to, uh, Richard Nixon) is the Editor in Chief of the Daily Planet. He’s a constant presence in the film, and gets some great lines and newsman jokes. Hell, he even pulls off White’s iconic “Great Caesar’s ghost!” without the faintest hint of irony or self-awareness, and that’s awesome.

Jimmy Olsen: Sam Huntington is actually really good as Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. He’s even got the bowtie and red hair this time around, but it works. He’s given more to do, and definitely gets to work as a kind of sidekick/“welcome back here’s what’s happened while you were gone” character.

Richard White: James Marsden (from the X-Men movies) is Perry’s nephew and Lois’ fiancée. He’s a likable, competent, good man who’s been there for Lois when Superman was not. This is a bit of an issue for the movie, since Richard is actually a much more admirable character than Supes. He has no super powers, but he still flies off into a storm to find Lois and her kid after they’ve been captured, risking his life for a woman that he loves but knows he can’t really compete against Superman for her affections. The man’s got stones, and he’s also likely a better father figure for little Jason. These are unfortunate implications for Clark Kent, and no doubt would’ve lead to trouble if they had made a direct sequel to Returns.

Jason White: Tristan Lake Leabu is okay, I suppose, as Lois’ son. The kid has a lot of screen time but pretty much only one expression on his face the whole movie. A weak link, though the idea of the character is not a bad one.

Lex Luthor: You know, I loved Gene Hackman’s gleefully evil portrayal of Lex Luthor in the original movies, but Kevin Spacey just takes the character and transcends him into A Class villainy. While there are definite nods to the prior films, this Luthor is an amoral, incredibly capable, incredibly arrogant, witty, evil genius. Everything he does is either deliberately planned out, or a magnificent adaptation to the situation. Not only that, but he’s also got competent henchmen (unlike Otis) and a fairly competent sidekick in Kitty Kowalski (Parker Posey) that’s a good verbal foil for him. Not only does this Luthor get shit done, but he also makes the character something the prior movies didn’t have: a credible, legitimately serious threat to Superman. He is this film’s magnificent bastard badass.

Bryan Singer is a very, very good director. This film goes for a very epic, sweeping feel to it over a frenetic “action-packed” vibe. There is a lot of action in it, but the whole look and feel is more of deliberate craftsmanship than of an action movie feel. In many ways, its aping Richard Donner’s style in the first one, and that’s not a bad thing. A lot of interior scenes are warmly lit, but action scenes are more stark and colorless. The overall effect is of a bright and optimistic tone that works fantastically for the character. Superman is all about hope and optimism triumphing over darkness, so a grimdark feel just wouldn’t fit the character. The only real complaint I can think of is that the pacing does grind down in places more often than I’d like, particularly by the end.

CGI is used a lot in the film, but its always in service to the story. Action sequences, like Superman’s rescue of the jet airliner fairly early in the film are fantastic, and the effects are all very solid.

Michael Dougherty (writer/director of Trick 'R Treat) and Dan Harris (who both worked with Singer on X2) brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table for this movie in examining the fallout of Superman being AWOL for five years. Characterizations are pretty good, but the movie never really seems to decide if it wants to be a direct sequel to the original movies or more of a reboot. This hurts the overall effect a little bit, though it was nice seeing archived footage of Marlon Brandon as Jor-El in a scene. Also of interesting note is that while nothing from the third or fourth movies is ever mentioned, the events of those films can still plausibly have taken place.

The score by John Ottman is very good and completely suited for the film, but once again, its all built on John Williams’ original score for the first movie.

You know, I honestly don’t understand nobody really talks about Superman Returns. The movie didn’t really do well at the box office and the studio pretty much washed its hands of it by not making a follow up after it. It’s a very well crafted and enjoyable movie, and easily the second best out of the five (which, if you’re interested in keeping score are ranked here: Superman the Movie, Superman Returns, Superman II, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (full title obligatory) and the vacuum devoid of any entertainment that is Superman III in my arrogant opinion. Its not a perfect film but it’s a really good, non-ironic or campy treatment of Superman. And if that’s not enough for you to see the movie; Kevin Spacey’s Luthor is a revelation of the character’s potential as a great villain.

Friday, November 27, 2009

“It's like being stuck in a bog; it's not easy to pull yourself you once you've fallen in.”

Samurai are always fun to watch, so I’m not really one to turn down an opportunity to do so when it presents itself. Zatôichi monogatari (or Zatôichi 1) was made in 1962 and was the first of almost thirty films featuring the blind swordsman. That right there’s a phenomenon, so what better way to take a look (incredibly lame pun) at where it all started.

A blind gambler and masseur who also happens to be an expert swordsman arrives at the estate of a rural crime lord/Yakuza. The boss wants Ichi around because a gang war is brewing with the crosstown rivals, who also have a sword master as their guest. Ichi impresses the hell out of his new “boss” and starts orbiting the dirty dealings going on around him. He goes fishing one day and meets the other ronin, and the two become buddies that respect each other quite a lot. However, the gang war becomes inevitable and things get really ugly in the village.

Zatôichi: Shintaro Katsu plays Blind Ichi. He’s a generally patient man, incredibly competent, and a fantastic swindler when it comes to gambling, and can bisect a lit candle so that both sides have wicks that are still on fire. Ichi’s a badass, plain and simple, and one that is capable of sincere vulnerability and morose reflection on his rather unpleasant life as sword for hire in the world of organized crime. He doesn’t like killing, but the life he finds himself in is one where his particular skills are extremely good at keeping him alive. He doesn’t even use a katana. He uses a straight edged sword cane.

Tatekichi: Michiro Minami plays the henchman more or less assigned to be Ichi’s servant during his stay. He starts off somewhat comical and unimportant, but then you find out that he’s trying to forcibly hook up his sister with a gangster buddy and he’s knocked up a girl in the village. He turns into a complete douche bag when said girl in the village ends up floating in the river soon after and you spend the rest of the movie waiting for his sweet, sweet comeuppance.

Tane: Masayo Banri plays Tate’s goodly sister, a nice gal who is trying not to get dragged back down into the gangster world. She and Ichi take a liking to each other.

Hirate: Shigeru Amachi plays the other swordsman, a formidable looking warrior with a few major issues. He’s from Edo, but apparently left under less than ideal circumstances, and he’s also got consumption (tuberculosis) which is slowly killing him. Considering his problems, its not a surprise that he drinks heavily. Circumstances put him and Zatoichi into positions as rivals, but honestly, they’re the most upstanding, honorable and likable characters in the entire movie.

Director Kenji Misumi filmed it in black and white, which gives the movie a great moody feel (and considering the criminal subject matter, there’s a little bit of a film noir feel thrown in). The story itself builds at a slow boil, with characters introduced and a feeling of the inevitable conflict mounts and mounts until you get some big violence at the end and a climactic duel. Misumi does use a couple of moments where he will have the camera in close on the characters, something happens and it zooms out rapidly to reveal a much larger scene. It’s a great technique and the suddenness of the zoom is a good contrast to the more traditional camera pans and whatnot.

Kan Shimosawa wrote the original short story that Zatoichi appeared in and Minoru Inuzuka handled the screenplay. Characterizations are great and you really get a feel for how scummy the crooks are and develop real sympathy for the two swordsmen. The story’s also got huevos for not going for the typically expected ending. Sure, some of it is expected, but there are some legitimate tweaks in it that make it memorable.

The score by Akira Ifukube is used mostly sparingly, for when the movie has its explosive bursts, and its effective.

Zatôichi monogatari is a pretty cool samurai movie. Probably not for everybody because its actually pretty light on action, but the atmosphere, build up and payoff are all really well done. It was a very good movie.

Surprising hard to find a clip of this movie on Youtube.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“If you will not tell me, I will hurt people!”

Oh God, no. Oh God why? Ohhhhhh God in Heaven, forgive me for what I have done. Forgive me for watching 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, for I knew not what I did.

We start with Superman doing heroic things, like saving a Russkie space capsule from a rogue satellite (that Pinko bastard) and then he watches the news reports saying that the Americans and the Russians are heating up the Cold War and he feels kind of bad about it. Then all of a sudden we go to a random classroom where the teacher was letting the students watch that press conference during class, and then she’s all like “so do you kids have any ideas on how we can stop this?” and the odd little antisocial kid in the back of the room who’s been staring out the window the whole time says “Why can’t Superman do it?” And so the kid gets the media spotlight and calls Superman out on it, and so Supes finally decides that he’s going to embark upon on a quest for peace (dun, dun, DUN!) and fly around the world to collect all the nukes and put them in a big net and throw them into the Sun. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor gets out of jail, makes deals with the recently unemployed nuclear arms dealers of the world and one thing leads to another and some really shady SCIENCE happens and we’ve got a villain, Nuclear Man, for Superman to fight on and off throughout the movie. Then there’s a subplot about a muckraking publisher taking over control of the Daily Planet and turning it into a sensationalist rag and his daughter develops a crush for Clark Kent and turns away from her wicked, yellow journalism ways.

So the lesson we can all learn from this is: If you ever get a chance to let Superman get rid of all the nukes in the world, it will only make things worse because somehow it’ll create an amoral, solar powered evil superhuman with bad 80’s hair that really likes destroying things.

Superman/Clark Kent: Christopher Reeve for the last time in a Superman movie. He’s still a very fine superman, but these movies still leave in the dickish implications of the character. How does naively throwing all the nukes into the Sun really help anything? Wouldn’t that lead to more/bigger solar flares and a huge power vacuum on Earth? And besides, this was 1987. It wasn’t like Gorbachev and Reagan were actually sitting in their war rooms with their fingers hovering over the red buttons at this point. Besides, that’s not even the worst of his dickery. He’s feeling down, and Lois visits Clark Kent and tries to cheer him up, then Clark reveals himself as Superman to her (again), takes her on a flight across the city (again) they share what might actually be a lasting moment and then he kisses her and makes her forget her identity (AGAIN). What an asshole he is for jerking that poor woman around. Then, when Lacy starts going out with Clark, Clark and Lacy decide to do a double date kind of thing with Lois and Superman. It gets…odd, and not in a good way.

Lois Lane: Margot Kidder is back, and this time for the whole movie. Nothing really majorly bad about her character, but Superman just keeps yanking her around like a negligent boyfriend. Still, its nice seeing the character back in action in full. The worst is when they re-shoot the flying scene and Super-Amnesia kiss near the beginning of the movie for no valid reason. Padding the running time does not count as a reason.

Jimmy Olsen: Marc McLure again, he had quite a bit of stuff in the Daily Planet subplot, so hooray.

Perry White: Jackie Cooper finally gets a character arc in these movies. Perry really doesn’t like the new sheriff in town, eventually resigning his post when he can’t take it anymore (don’t worry, he comes back by the end). That was actually a pleasant surprise.

David Warfield: Sam Wanamaker is the muckracker who takes over the Daily Planet. He’s a jerk because he actually wants the newspaper to turn a profit. Because its absolutely villainous to want to run a business as a success so that you can keep your building full of employees employed. Truly, a scourge on our way of life, he is.

Lacy Warfield: Mariel Hemmingway is Warfield’s daughter, a young woman who is following in daddy’s sludgy footsteps. Until she meets Clark and starts to warm up to actual, honest journalism. Or something. Also, she can apparently scream and not die in Space. No. Really.

Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of our generation: Yaaay!! Gene Hackman’s back to chew scenery as Lex Luthor. And chew it he does. He breaks out of jail and proceeds to develop a really crazy scheme to clone Superman and he creates one. Honestly, it’s a pretty bad plot, but its so damn fun watching Hackman’s Luthor that those scenes were the best in the movie. For that reason (and for actually being able to cut a piece of Superman’s hair with some bolt cutters...., don't look at me for an explanation, I didn't write this crap) he’s the movie’s badass. Also, this Lex is really the kind of guy who would take forty cakes when nobody was looking. Forty cakes. That’s as many as four tens. And that’s terrible.

Lenny Luthor: John Cryer (hey, wait a second. He was Washout in Hot Shots) is Lex’s heretofore unrevealed nephew, and the guy who gets him out of prison. Lenny’s not really a good character, but at least he’s someone for Lex to constantly berate in amusing ways.

Nuclear Man: The comfortably named Mark Pillow had the unenviable job of being the garishly costumed, poorly executed super villain that’s able to beat up Superman. At first appearance, he’s just not a very good actor in a silly costume, but then its revealed that he literally shuts down when not in sunlight and he also has really long metallic fingernails that can grow (menacingly, that’s exactly the opposite of the word I’m going for) and you’ve got a character that’s just laughably badly executed. I’ve read that he was supposed to be Bizarro (like they tried in Superman III and that actually would’ve explained a lot of his “opposite powers”) but the end result is not Bizarre (and not even Firestorm, the Nuclear Man who is a superhero that maybe five of you out there will have heard of), and I just really feel bad for Mr. Pillow. Not so bad that I stopped laughing at the movie, but still…

Sidney J. Furie directed this film, and there’s no doubt about it that he was working with a miniscule budget that was looking to cut costs everywhere. The result is very much a B movie feel, but you know what? The pacing at least moves fairly well (aside from the flying with Lois scene that is completely meaningless to both character development AND plot) and it does deliver a large amount of Superman action. Sure, its cheesy and bad, but at least there’s quite a bit of it, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than the snooze fest that is Superman III.

Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal wrote the screenplay and Christopher Reeve himself also contributed to the story. The story is a bit silly, but how much of that is the penny pinching studio’s fault I don’t know. There were some really interesting ideas thrown around, like an independent arc about the Daily Planet, the hints that Nuclear Man was actually supposed to be Bizarro, and the fact that it was a movie about Superman eventually having to deal with the fallout (oh yes, I went there) of his rather dickish “heroics.” Nuclear Man comes about solely because of his obsessive desire to rid the world of all nukes launched. There’s also a lot that’s bad too, particularly the dangling plot thread of whatever happened to Lana Lang from the third movie? Is she buried out back of Clark’s Smallville farmstead?

I can’t believe they got Alexander Courage (they guy who did the original TV theme for Star Trek) for the score. But again, its all built on what John Williams did.

I may have dreaded Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but the end result was surprising. It’s a terrible, terrible movie, but at least its hilariously bad, which immediately puts it over Superman III, which was bad at being hilarious. If you want to laugh at a foolish failure of a movie, then yes, this one might actually be relevant to your interest. Sort of recommended in that regard.

And that’s terrible.

Monday, November 23, 2009

“I don't want to go to jail because there are robbers and rapers and rapers who rape robbers.”

1983 brought Richard Lester back to a Superman movie, only this time he was involved from the very start. Boasting Richard Pryor in the cast, but completely without Gene Hackman, the movie was a definite departure from the previous films.

I hope you appreciate this.

So, Superman is doing his thing and all that, and Clark Kent goes home to visit Smallville where he reconnects with an old High School friend/crush Lana Lang, who’s got a kid now and a dead-end job and a drunken baby daddy that doesn’t help anything. Clark and her hit things off and they more or less start a relationship and he really wants to help her get out of Smallville. That’s the subplot. The main plot features an ex-con who is somehow a computer savant (at first it seems like a super power, but then not so much) who needs work, so he gets caught up in a scheming businessman’s evil scheme to, I don’t know. Corner some economic markets? Take over the world? Whatever. Some computery stuff happens and this guy ends up infecting Superman with some imperfect Kryptonite, which instead of killing him, turns him into a bigger dick than he’s already proven himself capable of.

Superman/Clark Kent: Christopher Reeve is still really charismatic and likable in the role, but a lot of it feels like paint the numbers stuff when he’s onscreen. The most interesting stuff that happens with him are the scenes with Clark and Lana Lang, and it was a nice nod to the Silver Age comic stuff that had a love triangle thing between Clark, Lois and Lana. Unfortunately, Superman isn’t really the focus of the movie all that much, and dear God does the movie suffer because of it. What’s worse, is that the movie really jumps the shark after Superman gets infected with the bad kryptonite. At first it turns him into an asshole, which is actually kind of hilarious if you’ve ever browsed the galleries over at and you’re already aware and/or amused by Superman being a dick to innocent bystanders. The real bad part happens when a kid appeals to Superman’s better nature, at which point he splits into two beings: Clark Kent and Douchebag Superman, who are equals in power and then they fight to the death because… Because… Because… Pardon my low Flemish, but WHAT THE FUCK?

Lois Lane: Margot Kidder is still an awesome Lois. For all ten seconds that she’s in the movie. The conceit is that “she’s going off on vacation.” Yeah. Sure. This was apparently studio politics at work.

Perry White: Jackie Cooper doesn’t get a whole lot to do in this movie, but at least he’s in it for a length of time.

Jimmy Olsen: Marc McLure finally gets some major screen time as we finally see him out in the field for real doing photo work and Superman saving him and stuff.

Lana Lang: Annette O’Toole (who would later play Ma Kent on Smallville, which…that’s just weird going from a character who wants to get in Clark’s pants to his mother figure) is actually the most interesting character in the movie. Vulnerable but competent, she’s trying to figure out a way out of her situation and guess what? She falls in love with Clark Kent, not Superman. Its actually a very, very interesting subplot.

Gus Gorman: Oh man. Now, Richard Pryor was a legitimately funny comedian, but this…this is not good. Some of his bits are amusing, but not nearly enough are, especially considering he’s got just as much screen time as Superman. He becomes a clownish henchman for the evil guys, going around getting items and such, but he’s also supposed to be some kind of hacker or computer whiz or. You know what, I don’t even have the heart to point out just how much this character doesn’t work in a Superman movie.

Ross Webster: Our Villain for the movie, an industrialist and philanthropist who wants to take over the world’s coffee and oil supply, because that’s a great villain for Superman to face. I can’t believe this is Robert Vaughn doing this. He was in the Magnificent Seven. He was Napoleon frickin’ Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Why is he being used as a low rent Lex Luthor clone without Hackman’s maniacal charm (Hackman apparently refused to come back after what happened to Donner). Ugh. He’s got a frumpy sister named Vera (Annie Ross) and a loopy “psychic nutritionist” Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson…that name’s familiar. Hey, wait, she was in History of the World Pt. 1) but they’re just there and ultimately, the villains just don’t work.

Well, it definitely looks lower budget. Richard Lester went full blown slapstick for the movie, and the opening credits go off on some sort of zany chain reaction accident sequence, which in itself isn’t exactly bad, but the important question is: Why’s it so prominent in a Superman movie? And that’s really the complaint with most of this stuff. Why is it going for a campy, zany feel when the first movie, which was neither campy nor zany, made a lot of bank and was well regarded by fans.

The pacing is terrible because instead of seeing Superman do various deeds of derring-do, instead we get one where Richard Pryor is narrating it to the villains, and narrating it in an irritating, campy, over-the top way that- Look, there’s an axiom of “show, don’t tell” when it comes to filmmaking and this movie is full of those kinds of failures. The bit is too long, not funny and just screams “we didn’t have the budget to actually film this scene.”

David Newman and Leslie Newman wrote the script (no Mario Puzo this time) and the story is, for the first half of the movie just a long, inoffensively boring piece of… cinema. I didn’t hate it at that point, I was just trying to stay awake (metaphorically). And then Evil Superman came out of nowhere and everything went to hell. Evil Supes is kind of a Bizarro Superman character, but not, just like the computer going rogue at the end was kind of like Braniac, but not. The ideas were floating around, but the execution for whatever reason was abysmal.

Ken Thorne and Giorgio Moroder worked on the score, but again, its all built on what John Williams wrote. The music remains decent.

I did not expect to hate this movie as much as I did. At first, the movie seemed simply dreadfully boring but numbly so. You’d have some Superman scenes, then see Richard Pryor bumbling around and so on. Then the movie gets stupid. Painfully stupid without any of that “so bad its hilarious” charm. Superman III fails as a Superman movie, and it fails as a comedy. Not recommended.

You know. For the kids.

“Come to me, Superman! I defy you! Come and kneel before Zod! Zod!”

Well, this is interesting. While the ending of Superman the Movie had a bit saying that he will return in a year or so, it was only in 1980 that Superman II was released. Unfortunately, Richard Donner, who had filmed a large chunk of footage for Superman II was booted off the project by the studio and didn’t receive any credit for his work on the sequel. Richard Lester was brought on to finish up the movie and received full credit. Studio politics aside, the important question is: is the movie good?

After Superman foils a terrorist plot to blow up the Eiffel Tower (and presumably the greater Paris area) with a hydrogen bomb, Superman throws the bomb out into space, where it explodes. The shockwave releases three Kryptonian criminals from their eternal prison in the Phantom Zone and they make their way to Earth with conquest on their minds. Meanwhile, the relationship between Lois Lane and Superman grows closer and closer while Lex Luthor breaks out of prison. Secrets are revealed and the planet Earth gets conquered, and then everything that’s happened is completely and lazily reset, rendering the entire movie moot. I’m not even joking. The ending was enormously stupid and completely destroyed whatever character development had taken place.

Superman/Clark Kent: Christopher Reeve is back in the tights and does a consistently good performance as Superman. However, the stuff the character is given to do is less consistent. The Clark/Superman duality gets explored some more and the love story with Lois gets quite tender in places. Then the movie goes all sideways by throwing in some bullshit about him having to give up his powers if he wants to bang Lois. Of course, he does so without too much angst and proceeds to become a weak sauce milquetoast that gets beat up by a trucker in a diner and then he finds out that the three evil Kryptonians have effectively conquered Earth while he was off snogging Lois. So then he goes back to the Fortress of Solitude, powers back up, somehow, and then goes off to face the bad guys. Is any of this necessary? The fight carries over to the Fortress of Solitude, where the villains get outwitted by Superman’s “taking away superpowers” machine and a friggin’ saran wrap-like version of his logo that he throws at Zod that temporarily ensnares the warlord. I wish I was making that up. Worse, the movie deals with the implications of Lois knowing who Superman is in a terrible way. *Spoilers* At the end of the movie, instead of trying to work things out with Lois about their feelings and doing some deep character growth, Superman just kisses her and SOMEHOW gives her super-amnesia, resetting their relationship to a point where she didn’t know who he was, completely invalidating all that rather touching character growth that we had in the movie. Clearly, Superman is a dick. Oh yeah, and then at the end of the movie, Clark goes back to that diner where he got his ass beat for some petty revenge and property damage, because, you know, he’s a role model. For the kids. *End spoilers*

Lois Lane: Margot Kidder is still great as the scrappy journalist. Her part in the movie is to figure out Superman’s identity, fall in love with Clark and give him some emotional angst over which part of his existence he should choose. She’s fine, but again, the ending of the movie completely craps on her character arc.

Perry White and Jimmy Olsen: Jackie Cooper and Marc McLure return as their respective characters. White still does some great scene chewing, but Jimmy just feels there.

Lara: Marlon Brando wanted more money than the studio was willing to pay him, so Jor-El does not return as the personality in the Fortress of Solitude’s computers. That honor goes to Supes’ mom, played by Susannah York, who’s all right, but its never ever explained WHY Superman has to relinquish his powers to be with a human woman.

Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind on Earth: Gene Hackman is great once more as Lex, hammily breaking out of prison with the help of Ballast, I mean, Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine). He heads north to the Fortress of Solitude, finds Supes’ secret stash of knowledge, and proceeds to broker a deal with General Zod in the hopes of gaining a modest fiefdom as a reward; Australia. Easily the film’s badass and the most consistently watchable/entertaining character in the movie.

General Zod: Terence Stamp is the grim-faced, conquering Zod. He tried to overthrow the government on Krypton before he got caught, and now, he succeeds in conquering Earth, then gets bored because its no challenge. He’s an all right character, but there’s just something wrong with his performance that I can’t place. Out of the three Kryptonians, he’s the most interesting, what with his egomaniacal penchant for yelling his own name out. Zod!

Ursa: Sarah Douglas (hey look kids, it Queen Taramis from Conan the Destroyer) is Zod’s implied lover and second in command. She seems to derive the most pleasure and wonder in her new powers and gets some great condescending lines of dialog. Because she’s very evil. Sexy evil.

Non: Jack O’Halloran plays the big, dumb, strangely mute brute in service to Zod. Non’s actually pretty funny, what with being given a mini-arc about his heat vision not being as strong as the other two villains’ and his efforts to make it stronger.

Spotty, that’s the word I’d use. Donner and Lester have different styles (Donner directed all of the Lex Luthor parts) and the movie itself has a very, very inconsistent visual tone. The first film is sweeping and epic in its visual presentation, and this movie lacks that. The special effects also look worse, especially the aerial fight scenes between Superman and Zod’s crew. Now, I know, I know. Limitations of the time, but seriously, they’ve aged badly. The pacing is also kind of spotty, though with switching directors mid-stream that’s hardly a surprise.

Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Tom Mankiewicz worked on the script, as in the first movie, but man, what happened? Plot holes big enough to fly a jet through litter the field. Super-amnesia kiss? Superman getting powered back up off-screen like it was nothing after such a tremendous build up to “giving up your powers FOREVER?” And what the hell happened to the villains at the end of the movie?? Superman depowers and beats them, and they just…fall into the shallow-looking pools of the Fortress of Solitude. That’s it. No resolution, no confirmation of if they’re alive or dead. They just literally drop out of the movie. If they died, then Superman’s a bigger dick than I thought, since he deliberately knocked them to their dooms. Oh, I probably should’ve marked that spoilers.

Ken Thorne turns in a pretty good score, but its all built on top of what John Williams originally wrote. This will become a theme with the Superman movies.

I never saw the Christopher Reeve Superman movies as a kid for some reason, so I never had the nostalgia goggles on for these movies, and I’ve got to admit, I am honestly baffled at how well liked Superman II is. There are some fantastic ideas and moments thrown in, but they’re mired in absolutely terrible storytelling mistakes, particularly in the unforgivably lazy ending. Its nowhere near as good as its predecessor. Hell, its not even a good movie, being decent watchable at best.

Now, I’m aware that a “Richard Donner” cut of the movie has been released on DVD, but I’m in no rush to see it right now (and don’t feel like dropping 25 bucks on it either), but I am slightly curious to get a better idea of what Donner was going for before he got booted.

The trailer lies. If you've only seen the first part, you have seen the best part.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

“An ode to spring. How do you spell ‘massacre?’”

Superman. The Man of Steel. The Big Blue Boy Scout. The first superhero’s been around since the 30s and is a fixture of the public conscious (let alone pop culture). Big Blue’s been no stranger to adaptations to the screen, from the radio serials, the awesome rotoscoped Fleischer Studios animated version to the TV series with George Reeves. Still, 1978 was a big year for Supes, because that was the year the big guy got a full-blown Silver Screen adaptation in Superman the Movie.

The first half follows Superman’s origin pretty closely. The Planet Krypton ‘splodes and baby Kal-El is rocketed away to save his life and he lands on earth, growing up an honest youth in Smallville, Kansas. After his father’s death, he travels to the big city of Metropolis to seek his future. Oh yeah, and Earth’s yellow sun gives him a hell of a lot of super powers. Taking on a “mild mannered news reporter” disguise, he makes a big debut where he flies around the city in a cape and tights, fights crime, has a reporter fall in love with him and gains the attention of Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of his generation.

Jor-El: Marlon Brando (yes, that one) plays Superman’s doomed father. Stern-faced and trying to warn his people of the impending danger, he’s not in the movie for very long, but after baby Superman is sent into space, he continues to be a presence because he’s recorded himself into the computers that Kal’s got with him.

Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman: This is the movie that put Christopher Reeve on the map. (Young Clark was played by Jeff East) Reeve does a great job with it too. As Superman, he looks the part with his square jaw and honest features, but really, he also pulls out a great performance changing back and forth from Clark to Superman that goes beyond just taking off the glasses. There’s a whole body language and tonal shift that he pulls of effortlessly. For the purposes of the movie, he is Superman, pulling off a great and convincing performance that’s pretty badass in its own right. I should also mention that veteran actor Glenn Ford played Jonathan Kent, his Pa who instilled the down-home values onto him, and he gets a very moving death scene.

Lois Lane: Margot Kidder is great as the ace reporter who befriends Clark but falls for Superman. Lois was updated from the “woman always getting in trouble that Superman rescues” to a more modern, initiative taking, ball busting scrappy newshound whose ambition to get a great story…always get her in trouble… and Superman… rescues… her. Um… It works better here, trust me. There is, however, one catch, and that’s the infamous flying scene (which is great at first). In it, Lois starts reciting a poem in her head about what she’s feeling and its cheesy as all hell.

Perry White: Jackie Cooper plays the boss of the Daily Planet, a straight-shooting, somewhat hyperbolic newshound. He gets some great lines but doesn’t do a whole lot.

Jimmy Olsen: Marc McLure plays the iconic young photographer, but like Perry, he’s not that important to the story. He certainly doesn’t seem like “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.”

Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of our generation: Gene Hackman’s fantastic as the incredibly hammy, toupee-wearing Lex. The performance is fun and his self-awareness of his own evil is a great contrast to Superman’s wholesome goodness. The scheme that Lex cooks up is thoroughly elaborate and outlandish, and he’s helped by two henchmen, the simpleton Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Tessmacher (Valerie Perrine). Lex is awesome in this.

Richard Donner did a fantastic job of making good on the tagline of “You will believe a man can fly.” Considering that this was ‘78, the effects are generally really good, but more than that, the whole visual style of the movie is fantastic. The overall effect is a mythologizing one. The movie is full of light moments and quite a bit of humor (like whenever Lex opens his mouth) but everything about Superman himself is played totally straight, and it works. I’m not that big a fan of the extremely crystalline look of Krypton and the Fortress of Solitude, but that’s just personal interpretation.

Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, OH (as a Clevelander, I feel obligated to point that out), came up with Superman back in 1932. The script for this version came from David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz with lead story credit going to Mario Puzo (Yes, THAT Mario Puzo, who wrote The Godfather). The movie itself divides into several sections. The Planet Krypton going boom, Clark’s arrival on Earth and his youth, Clark Kent’s arrival in Metropolis, and then the conflict with Luthor. All are classic beats in Superman’s origin, and they all get some fine spotlight time. The pacing does feel a little bit slow, especially after the explosion of Krypton, but as far as origin stories go, this one handles things pretty well.

Not everything’s perfect. Lex, while a really fun character, just doesn’t really feel like a serious threat to Superman, despite doing some pretty heinous stuff. The ending of the movie, too, stretches things a little too far past what would be reasonable. Just because Superman was capable of doing some pretty physically impossible stuff during the 50 and 60s doesn’t mean it should be played straight in 1978. Flying in space is one thing (Supes can do that just fine without a suit), but how the movie resolves the ending is just a little too farfetched in a “modern” Superman take.

John Williams.

Oh, you want more? Okay. The "Superman Theme" is one of the best cinematic fanfares around, and the whole movie has musical moments of awesomeness. That better?

Superman the Movie is a legitimately fun movie that I would say was an early success of the superhero genre. It slathers the source material with love, but isn’t afraid of doing some self-aware poking fun at the genre either. There are a couple of “what the hell?” moments and some of the effects haven’t aged well, but the good stuff generally overshadows the bad. A very fun movie and definitely recommended.

Yes its an American Express commercial, so what? Its amusing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

“When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.”

Now, First Knight was a terrible, terrible movie. We’ve established this in no uncertain terms. But, you may ask, what then is the measure of a good Arthurian film? Holy Grail is a comedy, so it doesn’t really count if you want to get nitpicky. So what then does count? Ah, to understand the proper way to tell an Arthurian movie, we must look at 1981’s Excalibur by John Boorman. It is a film long held up as a definitive Arthurian movie and subsequent films have all tried to do something radically different from it, like telling “the true story” of King Arthur. Well, let’s see what’s so special about this long, magic-infused epic that subsequent moviemakers haven’t even bothered trying to imitate it.

Whoo-boy. This could get long. Let’s just say that the focus of the story is a man and a sword, their fates entwined. Merlin arranges for the sword Excalibur to be given to King Uther Pendragon for the purposes of uniting England, but Uther gets blinded by lust and alienates the lords by betraying the Duke of Cornwall and sleeping with his wife (with some help from Merlin). A son is born from the union and given to Merlin. Uther is killed soon after. The son grows up into Arthur, recovers the sword and becomes King of England, uniting the land under his idealistic rule. He marries the lovely Guenevere, befriends the mighty Lancelot, but even then, forces are at work at the Court of Camelot that seek to destroy what he’s built. You know, pretty much the standard Arthurian story that follows his birth all the way to his climactic death. It’s a long movie at 140 minutes, but it covers a lot of ground.

King Uther: Gabriel Byrne in his big-screen debut. Uther is an ambitious man, eager to unify England under one banner; his. With Merlin’s help he gets Excalibur, a sword that can help forge that kingdom. Unfortunately, after settling peace with the Duke of Cornwall, Uther falls violently in love with Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne, and the two lords go to war. Merlin pulls some magic and Uther is able to ride into Cornwall’s court disguised as him and bed Igrayne (in a rather awkward love scene because he’s still wearing his armor). Merlin’s price for helping Uther in this is the child born of this union. Uther’s not in the film all that much, but he leaves a strong impression. He’s basically like Arthur but without the self-restraint.

Merlin: Nicol Williamson is this film’s glorious badass. Merlin is younger than one would normally expect. His beard is neither gray nor very long. But Williamson brings an incredibly over-the-top delivery with a peculiar accent that just makes him fun as all hell to watch. His delivery takes a witty stance when he needs to and completely deadpan when delivering his grim portents and prophesies. He’s an absolute scene stealer and a character that really gets a lot done.

Arthur: Nigel Terry has a lot to do in this film, basically playing Arthur from a young man all the way to old age. He does an all right job, delivering everything with a straight face, and he looks appropriate in the armor as a leader of men, but there’s just something missing from the character that I can’t place. There’s a fire that’s missing from Arthur for a lot of scenes.

Lancelot: Nicholas Clay is Lancelot, a knight bold and true and undefeatable in combat. Until Arthur pushes Excalibur over the limit to beat him (breaking the sword in the process: don’t worry, it gets fixed). Lancelot is Arthur’s greatest knight, but of course he falls in love with Guenevere and that whole situation comes up. Its handled much better here than in *shudder* First Knight. They know their attraction is wrong and Lancelot does everything in his power to keep away from her, but it just doesn’t work and the two do eventually do the deed (yielding quite a bit more naked Lancelot than is bargained for).

Guenevere: Cheri Lunghi rounds out the love triangle. She’s all right as the Queen of Camelot, and the movie does give her and Arthur’s romance time to grow before the marriage, which works in their favor when it comes time for the affair. Still, Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere all feel like weaker links in this film, especially compared to the Merlin subplot.

Leodegrance: Patrick Stewart (yes, that one) plays the smaller role of Guenevere’s father. A veteran warrior who sides with Arthur soon after the lad draws the sword from the stone, he’s a loyal member of the court and in Arthur’s riding to his aid, the king meets Guenevere. Sadly, Leodegrance disappears from the movie after the wedding.

Gawain: Liam Neeson in one of his earliest roles. He plays Gawain as a fairly simple big guy with an odd haircut (seriously, I don’t get why they did that). His major part is in challenging Guenevere’s fidelity to Arthur. After that, he fades into the background.

Perceval: Paul Geoffrey plays a plucky lad who wants to become a knight, eventually convincing Lancelot to take him to Camelot where he can become a squire. He gets knighted in order to help defend Guenevere’s honor. After that, he becomes the central figure of the grail quest, where he practically goes through hell to find the cup.

Uryens: Keith Buckley plays a lord that is most resistant to Arthur ascending the throne. After a battle, Uryens finally comes round and joins the court. He’s a minor character, but the fact that he keeps showing up consistently through the movie makes him worth mentioning, particularly for his part in the grail quest with Perceval.

Morgana: Helen Mirren (yes, that one) plays the scheming magician that’s Arthur’s half sister. She plays Morgana up as a vamp, sidling up to male characters like Arthur and Merlin to get them to do what she wants. She really hams it up, particularly in her mental duel with Merlin as she tries to seduce him in order to learn all his secrets.

Mordred: Robert Addie plays the unholy spawn of Morgana’s deceptive union with Arthur, the arrogant, ambitious, cruel Mordred. He makes a striking appearance with his gold armor and a helmet that basically serves as a mask (with golden hair and open for his mouth so that it looks like a corrupted face). The armor is ten times as creepy on the boy Mordred, played by Charley Boorman (the director’s son). Man those scenes with boy Mordred were creepy. That laugh alone can cause nightmares.

John Boorman, who directed Deliverance, Exorcist: II and the, er... "legendary" Zardoz, went full out with the look of the film. Completely throwing historicity out the window in favor of myth, his knights spend all their time running, lounging, playing and fornicating in armor, if for no other reason than it looks mythical. Filmed in Ireland, the movie has a wet, lush and very green feel to it that helps with the atmosphere. The movie definitely goes for the magical route of Arthurian legend, but does so more subtly than with puppets or guys in rubber dragon costumes, and I think that’s really for the best. Here, the magical stuff is shadowy, mysterious and you can’t really be sure its all on the level with the heroes, not even with Merlin. Also, the color green (usually reflected or lit up in an unearthly way) is a nice way of saying “magical stuff here” without being too obvious about it. The visual pacing is nice, with scenes moving along, but the movie does feel long, just by the sheer amount of stuff it piles on. The fight scenes on the other hand, well, they’re pretty clunky and slow moving, though not without entertainment.

Thomas Malory gets credited for Le Morte D’Arthur, which tells you how historically accurate this film’s going to be. (The answer is not at all.) John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg adapted the mammoth book into a big film, and generally do a good job of telling the Arthur story and hitting the major beats. The Merlin/Morgana interplay is mostly new though, and that’s also the part of the film that really stands out. I definitely have to give credit to a movie that manages to add some interesting new elements to the Arthurian Romance while still being a thematically faithful telling of the legend.

Trevor Jones wrote original music for the film, which works great, but the most memorable musical cues come from the use of some Richard Wagner and some Carl Orff. Orff’s O Fortuna from Carmina Burana being a signature sound for the film as it accompanies Arthur and his knights riding to battle. Good stuff.

Excalibur is actually a very fine film if you can get over the camp elements (like the constant wearing of armor for leisure and whatnot). The movie achieves an epic feel and really does succeed in bringing a mythological take on King Arthur. Its really more of a cult film now because some of the look hasn’t aged well, but for what it is, its probably the best straight faced telling of Arthur that uses all of the magical elements in the story. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t seem to want to try and surpass it on that front, instead going for “the true history of Arthur” movies that pile on the grime and filth and try to deconstruct the characters into the dust and owe more visually to Gladiator than to Excalibur. It’s a shame, but rumors are circulating that Bryan Singer is planning some kind of remake, which makes me cautiously hopeful for a mystical, thoroughly “Arthurian” telling of the tale.

And just to give you an idea of Merlin in this:

Monday, November 16, 2009

“It’s not over yet. I may get a captain’s head!”

In 1954, Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki began a sweeping trilogy focusing on one of Japan’s greatest historical heroes; warrior, philosopher, artist, badass Miyamoto Musashi. The first of these movies, Miyamoto Musashi (or Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto on the American DVD release) tells the origin of the legendary swordsman. Starring Toshiro Mifune, the film series was based on a novel about the man, so liberties were naturally taken, but a figure like Musashi generated a lot of legends about him anyway. So sit down and buckle up, because you’re about to get Musashi’d (he was so badass his name deserves to be a future-perfect verb)

So a rebellious youth convinces his buddy (who’s betrothed) to run off to war to seek fortune and ADVENTURE! What they find is being on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, where in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory that would pave the way for his hegemony over Japan, heralding the end of a long period of civil wars for supremacy. Anyway, injured, our main characters find a small house where a mother and daughter help heal them and then have them fight off some bandits. The women make a play for our hero, but he doesn’t want them, so he leaves. His buddy, finally healed up from his serious wounds, decides to stay with the two ladies as their protector, completely neglecting the fiancée he left back home. Our real hero returns to Miyamoto village where, thanks to his wild behavior, he gets every law official in the area wanting him brought in for punishment. He finally gets captured by a Buddhist priest who seems to have plans for the wild swordsman.

Takezo/Musashi Miyamoto: Toshiro. Mifune. All right, you probably need more than just that. Takezo is the “wild one” of his village, so much so that his relatives have all disowned him. He runs off to war to seek fortune and glory, survives battle and becomes a drifter. After his buddy decides to abandon his fiancée, Takezo returns to his home village, killing a few guards at a checkpoint. As the town officials try to bring him in, he keeps killing more guards in self defense and hides out in the woods like a bogeyman. Finally captured by a clever Buddhist priest, he gets strung up in a tree for two days to, basically think things over, but he eventually escapes and then gets captured again by the priest, who locks him into an attic full of books, telling him to train and bring himself under control before he earns the name Miyamoto Musashi. He’s quite the badass, but he’s also unbridled and wild, not thinking much through before acting.

Honiden Matahachi: Rentaro Mikuni plays Takezo’s buddy who’s an indecisive little prick. On the one hand he wants to marry his girl, but on the other he wants to follow Takezo to war. Matahachi eventually crosses the line into full douche bag when he tries (and eventually relents) to rape a woman and then abandons his fiancée to follow two shady women to Kyoto, eventually marrying one of them. His mom’s a real bitch too.

Otsu: Kaoru Yachigusa plays Matahachi’s long-suffering ex-fiancée. An orphan in the village and cared for by the town priest, she’s a good girl, honest and true. After Takezo’s return home, she finally learns what became of her jerkass betrothed and starts to grow closer to Takezo.

Priest Takuan Osho: The Buddhist priest in Miyamoto village who takes care of Otsu and later resolves to capture Takezo. A clever chap who’s apparently very well connected with government officials, he captures Takezo, brings him back to town and hangs him in a tree for two days, all while cheerfully countering Takezo’s shouts and promises of bloody vengeance. He just smiles back and says things that are obviously intended to be a lesson for Takezo, who doesn’t really get it. For being patient enough to not only catch the future Musashi, but also for giving the wild swordsman a chance to make something useful of his life, he manages to out-badass Takezo.

Hiroshi Inagaki filmed the movie in color (the quality of which varies from shot to shot because of age) and the movie isn’t so much lush as it is moody. Rain shows up during Sekigahara, creating a hopeless atmosphere, then as Takezo travels around, the lighting and color help set the moods he’s in as he wrestles with himself. The use of shadows in particular is fantastic in this film, and Inagaki set up lots of fantastic shots. The movie is 93 minutes, but the pacing both makes it feel like a longer film that feels short for a long film (an…odd phrase, I realize, but that’s the feeling). The action scenes themselves, while not that prevalent, are brutal and quick, with a wild intensity to them and an “unchoreographed” feel to them, especially when villains find themselves getting “Musashi’d” (Yeah, I’m trying to force a meme here. Indulge me).

Eiji Yoshikawa wrote the novel, Hideji Hojo wrote the play and Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao are credited as writers. Whatever. The result is a tightly crafted character piece that tells an interesting origin story for one of the greatest swordsmen in history.

The original score by Ikuma Dan is not a constant presence in the film, but there are moments of high emotion where it soars dramatically.

Miyamoto Musashi is a very compelling film that is much more of a character drama than straight up action, but it does both of those things well. A lot of loose ends are left over at the end, but the film is clearly meant to be the first chapter in a larger story, so its forgivable. Absolutely recommended as a dramatic foreign period film, and if that doesn’t sell you on it: Toshiro Mifune being nonstop awesome.

Not finding the trailer on Youtube, so here's the IMDB link for it

Friday, November 13, 2009

“Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing.”

In the early summer of 2008, audiences were subjected to the first of a new wave of superhero films. While still delivering big action, it also opened the door for a unified setting that could bring hero franchises licensed to different studios together for the purposes of clever storytelling and making lots of money. Iron Man directed by Jon Favreau, seemingly came out of nowhere to knock mainstream audiences off their asses. I, of course, was closely following the quietly supportive buzz of the film and was not in the least surprised when it not only spawned a sequel, but also cluster of currently in-development Marvel Comics based films that all have the goal of dovetailing into a team movie. This makes the Avengers fan in me insanely happy.

Wealthy industrialist Anthony Stark is a brilliant but lazy and hedonistic heir to his father’s technology and weapons company. More interested in boozing and womanizing, Stark does eventually travel to Afghanistan to do a live product test of a new missile system for the Air Force. On his way back to base, he is critically injured and taken hostage during an ambush. His life saved by another captured scientist who implants an electromagnetic generator in his chest to keep the shrapnel in his body from reaching his heart (which would kill him) Stark and the scientist are told to build a missile, but instead build a means for Stark to escape; a suit of armor powered by the upgraded generator in Stark’s chest. And that’s all the flashback.

Stark escapes but his armor gets trashed. Back in the States, he convalesces and makes waves saying that he wants to take the company out of weapons sales until he can evaluate what went wrong (he found a lot of Stark weaponry in the terrorist camp). Holing up in his basement he refines his armor into a better form and then proceeds to take some matters into his own hands about getting his company’s weapons out of the hands of hostiles. That may prove tougher than it sounds.

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey Jr. plays the playboy Stark to a tee in a fit of perfect casting. Stark is personable, brilliant and often bored by most of the less smart people around him. Tony Stark makes you feel he’s a cool exec with a heart of steel. You can tell how annoyed he gets when he has to explain something to someone that doesn’t get it the first time. Brilliant casting and acting combined with a character that always seeks refuge in audacity makes Tony Stark this movie’s badass.

Virginia “Pepper” Potts: Gwyneth Paltrow turns in a good performance as Stark’s patient personal assistant. Loyal to him, there’s also that strong hint of sexual tension between them, but also the realization that if they consummate their feelings, the friendship would fall apart because of who Stark is.

James Rhodes: Terrence Howard plays Stark’s Air Force buddy, a man with some clout in the service and a steadfast friend. Doesn’t really get to do a whole lot since its really more foreshadowing for the next movie (which replaces Howard with Don Cheadle)

Dr. Yinsen: Shaun Toub is the captured scientist who save Stark’s life and confronts him about finding a purpose in life.

Jarvis: Paul Bettany voices Stark’s personal computer system, a snarky, apparently sentient OS that gets uploaded to the Iron Man armor and tries to be the voice of reason for Stark’s more reckless decisions.

Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger: Jeff Bridges plays completely opposite the Dude as the guy who’s been running Stark Industries while Tony was out drinking martinis and bedding journalists. He doesn’t like Stark growing a conscience and taking tighter control of the company since (like it’s a spoiler) he’s the bad guy. Now if only he could fix that damn icing problem.

Raza: Faran Tahir (who was a Starfleet Captain in the Star Trek reboot) plays the shadowy, bald and later scarred leader of the Ten Rings, a multi-national terrorist organization bent on…well, their motives aren’t exactly clear, so he’s mostly there as foreshadowing of something that will eventually involve ten rings and has a connection to a certain Mongolian-connected super villain in the Iron Man mythos. Hopefully.

Agent Coulson: Clark Gregg plays a modest member of a government agency who’s full name is a mouthful (it gets abbreviated to S.H.I.E.L.D.). He has a very high interest in Stark’s activities and his new toy.

You know, I didn’t originally associate Jon Favreau, the witty writer and star of Swingers to have a really good sense of action movie aesthetics. I’m glad I was wrong, because this movie is slick, not just in looks but in pacing. Shots are well laid out and the special effects, including a practical costume of each Iron Man suit (as well as really well done CGI versions) help flesh out a hefty feel for the movie. Fight scenes are fantastically done, and the movie has a great industrial feel to it. Also, after the credits there is the mother of all teases for this shared universe that Marvel Studios is working on.

Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway all worked on the screenplay, adapting the comics character originated by Stan “The Man” Lee, “Dazzlin’” Don Heck, Jack “King” Kirby and Larry “I don’t know his Mighty Marvel nickname” Lieber. As far as an origin story goes, the screenwriters did a great job of adapting a Cold War superhero to a modern setting while still keeping the core traits of Tony Stark and his supporting cast. They did a great job, and the dialog in particular is fantastic.

The original score by Ramin Djawadi (Blade Trinity) is a little bit on the generic side, but I think its more industrial cues were a great fit to the film and there are moments where the score just completely clicks with the visuals, like when Stark takes the Mk. II for a spin over the city. Of course, the movie wouldn’t be complete without Black Sabbath’s “Ironman” playing at the very end of the movie.

2008 was a great summer for movies, and I will defiantly proclaim Iron Man as my favorite of the bunch. Dark Knight had the best villain and Wall-E was the best damn movie of the year, but Iron Man is just a fantastic ride that merges crazy SCIENCE with fast paced ADVENTURE! that you wish you could be a part of. If you haven’t already seen it, amend this status right away.

Or I will find you.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“You got soft on me back there, Earth boy, and that I will not tolerate.”

So Warner Brothers and DC Comics have been producing quite a few animated, PG-13, direct to video movies featuring a growing number of their superheroes. They started out with mostly Superman and Batman stuff, and while that’s cool, I guess, I’m not in a hurry to see these because those two have twelve feature length, live-action theatrical releases between them. However, other characters have been getting animated pushes, and Green Lantern: First Flight (2009 for those of you wishing me to look at really recent stuff) definitely intrigued me. 1) the Star Wars fan in me wants good space action and 2) I’ve always pretty big on Green Lantern as a kid (I even had the infamous “woman in refrigerator” issue from the 90s). I’m not the biggest GL fan I know (that honor goes to a buddy who may or may not eventually give me back my copy of First Flight), but I definitely dig the characters and concepts, and always have.

77 minutes isn’t a whole lot of time to get stalled by boring backstory, so the movie doesn’t bother. We open up on Hal Jordan, test pilot getting his simulator yanked out of its building and transported to a crashed space ship where a dying member of the Green Lantern Corps. hands Hal a ring that immediately transforms him into a new GL. Shortly thereafter, some more Lanterns show up, unhappy that an Earthling has a power ring and take him to Oa, the home of the immortal Guardians, tiny blue aliens who built a giant power battery at the center of the Universe and send out Green Lanterns to be the cops of space armed with rings that can create constructs of whatever is in the user’s imagination, limited only by their willpower, and the charge on the ring, and the rings don’t do too well against yellow either. But other than that, its limitless power. After Hal convinces the Smurfs that the ring chose him, they grudgingly assign him to one of the most famous Green Lanterns, Sinestro. After some training, Sinestro takes Hal into the field to track down the killer of Abin Sur, the guy who gave Hal his ring. What happens after that I’ve heard referred to as “Training Day in space.”

Hal Jordan, Green Lantern of Earth: Christopher Meloni (probably most famous for being on just about every version of Law & Order ever) plays the very much rookie Hal. He’s a test pilot, so he’s no stranger to danger and courage, but he’s a complete greenhorn when it comes to the procedures of the Green Lantern Corps. He ends up questioning them a lot.

Sinestro: Victor Garber (who’s been in a lot of things) voices Sinestro, the Green Lantern of Korugar and a guy who thinks the Guardians are being too soft on crime. He enters a den of criminals run by someone named Labella (Juliet Landau) and basically tortures her for information. People familiar with the Green Lantern mythos (and anybody who notices his name) will be pleased to note that Sinestro stays true to character and ends up going rogue. But before and after it, he’s easily the movie’s badass (Hal’s just a rookie, after all)

Boodikka: Tricia Helfer (you know, the hot Cylon from the Battlestar Galactica reboot) plays a veteran female Lantern that warms up to Hal a lot faster than most of the other Lanterns.

Kilowog: Michael Madsen (from Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill) plays the big alien bruiser and drill sergeant of the Corps. He doesn’t like Hal at first, but after the poozer saves his bacon, he starts reconsidering his assessment. 

Tomar Re: John Larroquette (yeah, I was surprised too) plays the bird-like, beaky alien who’s with the squad as they find Hal.

Ganthet: Larry Drake (who was in an episode of Firefly and was the bad guy in two Darkman movies) plays one of the little blue Guardians, and the one most amenable to humans.

Kanjar Ro: Kurtwood Smith (whom you may have seen as Red Foreman in That 70s Show. Not I, though, because that show was terrible. I’d rather think of him as the bad guy from Robocop or the jerkwad dad from Dead Poet‘s Society). He plays a crook who’s goon was responsible for Abin Sur’s death. He’s got a pretty powerful weapon that the key to finding one that’s even more powerful, one that’s even capable of challenging the Guardians.

Directed by Lauren Montgomery, the animation team has produced a stylish, slick and colorful action flick. The animation is solid and the action scenes, which are most of the movie, are duly inventive for a movie featuring rings that can magically create anything the bearer thinks of. This being a Green Lantern movie, expect the abundance of that color, as well.

Written by Alan Burnett (who’s written for pretty much every Western animated series since the early 80s) does an interesting job with the script. While he hits all of the major beats (test pilot, Sinestro turning coat, the Carol Ferris appearance, a bunch of fan-favorite Lanterns make an appearance) he also changes quite a bit to keep things interesting. The appearance of some of the aliens, for one thing (Kanjar Ro was never this intimidating before) and the dialog, particularly Sinestro’s, is really solid.

The original score by Robert J. Kral (who’s done a fair amount of TV scores, including the lamentably cancelled The Dresden Files) does a fantastic job. The fanfare playing over the main credits is both heroic and science fiction-y in particular.

Green Lantern: First Flight is really good for a modest, direct market animated film. The animation quality is great, the casting great and the story delivering an action packed but not stupid ADVENTURE! If it wasn’t for the damn Animation Ghetto that the West is currently in, these kinds of films might get a little more press in the mainstream instead of the usual stuff that gets dismissed as mindless fluff.

Monday, November 09, 2009

“And that my friend ends a partnership that should never have begun.”

Okay, so the Star Wars prequels tried and failed to kill me. The Halloween Octoverride tried and failed to kill me. My laptop turning into a suicidal wreck failed to stop me. I survived, but not without leaving me with a limp and a visible shake in my left hand. Let’s wash the taste of that out with a good movie. A classic movie from 1935. A movie that was Errol Flynn’s first major role. With PIRATES! Buckle up your swashes, gents, and loosen those corsets, ladies. Its time for Captain Blood.

So, an Irish doctor gets in trouble with the crown for treating a wounded man who was part of a rebellion against King James of England (the second, presumably). Unfairly prosecuted and sold into slavery, he finds himself on a Jamaican plantation run by a jerkass governor and his hottie of a daughter. After a chance raid on the town of Port Royal allows the slaves (who, uh, all happen to be white actors: sadly a sign of the times the movie was made in) to go free and hijack a Spanish ship, the doctor, now the captain of the stolen ship, sets out with his crew to make a living of High Seas ADVENTURE!

Captain Doctor Peter Blood, MD: Errol Flynn (remember him from the glorious Adventures of Robin Hood?). Ok, so the good doctor’s a bit of a marty stu, but he’s also a perfect larger than life figure for the ADVENTURE! of the film. He’s heroic, no matter what situation, but he’s also got a sharp tongue, full of Irish impudence, particularly toward those who are corrupt or harbor (ha ha, nautical pun) fondness for King James. Rises to epic badass levels through sheer impudence and force of personality. And his name’s basically Captain Blood, MD.

Arabella Bishop: Olivia de Havilland (also from Robin Hood) plays the somewhat spoiled but by no means evil niece of the governor of Port Royal. She and Blood have some great courtly flirting scenes before Blood makes his escape, and after he’s become a pirate lord and comes across her again, she alone is the anchor (ha ha) that keeps him from drifting (ha ha) into villainy. For her, Blood turns away from his corsairing ways, and the chemistry between the actors convinces you that its worth it.

Levasseur: Basil Rathbone has a pretty small role as an amoral French pirate who becomes bro’s with Blood. The two produce a piratical partnership, but the pernicious Provencal plots to perfidiously profit from Blood’s placid patronage. This leads to a short but epic swordfight on a beach over (what else?) a woman. Arabella, to be precise.

Colonel Bishop: Lionel Atwill (from the Octoverride Frankenstein movies) plays the greedy, abusive governor Bishop, and Blood’s sworn nemesis. Not a whole lot to his character. He’s a jerk, the audience doesn’t like him. Instant villain.

There are a bunch of other characters, particularly Blood’s crew, but they only have a few quirks to differentiate themselves and its not really worth going into it. One’s a cowardly opportunist, one’s a deeply religious man, one’s a drunk, and so on. They get the job done though.

Directed by Michael Curtiz (who also co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) the movie is shot in Glorious Black & White, which thanks to the set designs and camera angles, does not hamper the vitality of the ADVENTURE! Some of the miniature work is obviously so, but nothing game breaking. The movie itself is very episodic, covering a lot of ground quickly, often with the help of expository text blocks to help move things along past the dull parts. The end result is a rocket fast ride of heroism against the odds and redemption and forgiveness, along with the standard swashbuckling swordfights and ship-to-ship fusillades that are staples of the genre. Its also a joy to watch Flynn and Rathbone duel to the death again (though this is a much shorter fight than in Robin Hood).

Casey Robinson adapted a novel by Rafael Sabatini (an Italian author who wrote several pirate stories) and throws in a lot of great dialog. Rapid fire flirting, stirring speeches, and Blood’s stubborn Impudence all get delivered with aplomb. No, its probably not very historical, but my understanding of the Age of Sail isn’t exactly expert level anyway, and the movie isn’t trying to be historical.

Erich. Wolfgang. Korngold. ‘Nuff said. Made extra awesome by the fact that reportedly he scored the film in three weeks.

Raucous High Seas ADVENTURE! Sometimes that’s all you really need to sell a movie and Captain Blood delivers it in spades. I will say that The Adventures of Robin Hood, which involves a lot of the same filmmakers and lead actors is a much more polished and in some ways better film, but Captain Blood is a great ride and a worthy precursor. Totally recommended as one of the defining Pirate ADVENTURE! films.