Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bond Review #7: Moonraker

First off, I’d like to apologize for not having a Bond Review last week like I said I would. I’m starting to run behind on these things. However, since it seems that MGM/FOX is not releasing the blu-ray sets as fast as originally appeared, it would be better for me to slow down a bit anyway, lest I run out of Blu-Rays to review. Oh well, without further delay, here is the promised review of Moonraker.

At the end of The Spy Who Loved Me, it was announced that Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only. Two years later we get not that, but Moonraker. After Star Wars came out, everyone jumped on the sci-fi bandwagon, James Bond included. The results are spectacular, as in full of spectacle… Yet it’s way too out there, even for Bond. James Bond goes into outer space… Um… yeah…

In Moonraker, Bond is sent to investigate the hijacking of a space shuttle right off the back of a 747. He goes to question Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) first, as he heads the company that made the shuttle. When Drax tries to get Bond killed a few times over, he starts to get suspicious. Bond ends up following Drax to Venice, then Rio, then to the Amazon, and finally into outer space. Now, maybe this doesn’t sound too out there for a James Bond movie… It’s how it’s done. The space ending is so out of left field, and it makes the movie feel like a rip off of the Bond film that came just before this one, The Spy Who Loved Me. Another plot to restart the human race not living on land. This time with a magical plant extract killing the humans left on earth. James Bond is NOT science fiction!

That being said, the film feels a lot different that Spy Who Loved Me. That movie was probably the best of the Roger Moore Bond films. It was the pinnacle of the gadgety, quip filled Bond movies. Nothing could surpass it. Moonraker tried very hard to do so, but it ended up going too far. Gondolas turning into cars, spaceships, speedboats with hang gliders… it’s all too much. The humor is also out there. There’s a scene where Bond is escaping some assassins in a gondola turned car… The score suddenly changes to some sort of classical symphony whilst showing people’s (and animals) reactions to the sight. You even see a pigeon do a double take. There’s also product placement galore. Look for it especially when Bond is in Rio. The whole segment of the film is filled with it. It’s something that Bond had never really done before.

I do have to mention, though, that this is the last movie where James Bond looked young enough to play Bond. After this movie, he started to wrinkle at a ghastly rate. Also the movie has some of the greatest action sequences in the series. The skydiving fight at the beginning, the cable car segment, the ambulance escape, the speed boat chase, and of course the laser battles in space are some of the greats from the whole film series. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the action sequences really have nothing to do with the plot. In fact, in the making-of documentary, it was said that the producers just wanted to use specific locations, and built the plot around the locations. The movie has nothing to do with the book of the same name.

Locations: 10/10 We have great locations here, used to their optimal potential. We visit Venice, Rio, the Amazon, and outer space. The selection here is diverse and beautiful. It’s one thing that the early/mid Roger Moore movies did very well. They are all effective travelogues until View To A Kill.

Villains: 5/10 Michael Lonsdale is a very boring villain. One of the worst. I’m of the assumption that they chose him just because they had to have French actors due to them filming a lot in France due to tax issues in England. However, I will bump up the score a bit because Jaws is back, although in a slightly more humane form. It’s nice to have one of the best Bond henchmen back though.

Bond Girl: 4/10 Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead is just okay. She’s forgettable, but she isn’t bad. She’s also a CIA agent in the movie, so she isn’t totally helpless like some Bond girls. I’m just really “meh” about her.

Direction/Design: 8/10 This was directed by Lewis Gilbert, and was his last Bond film. He directed You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me before this, so in effect, he directed the three most over the top Bond movies there are. The movie has great set design and huge production values, but the direction is pretty pedestrian.

Theme Song: 5/10 This is the third, and last Bond song sang by Shirley Bassey. It’s better than Diamonds Are Forever, but not as good as Goldfinger. It’s more a ballad, and I think that’s what I like about it. It stands in stark contrast to the other Moore-era Bond songs. Other than that, it’s not too memorable.

Overall: 4/10 I like individual set pieces of this movie, but as a whole it really kinda sucks. It’s a hodgepodge of action sequences put in without any regard for plot. The villain is recycled and boring, the story just about as boring as that… I like the outer space stuff technically, but story wise it doesn’t belong in Bond… ever. The movie is a fun watch, but the brain must be left at the door, my friends.

The blu-ray is magnificent, boasting probably the best picture quality I’ve seen from the older Bond movies I’ve seen on the format so far. The making-of is one of the longest in the series, and even ends in a collection of bloopers! The commentaries could have been better though. I’ve heard better in the James Bond blu-rays. I do recommend it though, as the picture quality is excellent, and it’s great to see Bond in it’s most flamboyant, even if the results are not great in the story department.

James Bond Reviews will return sometime soon with... From Russia With Love.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Angels and Demons

Three years ago, Ron Howard's film adaptation of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" was met with a lot of controversy, but decidedly negative reviews. That film was a plodding snoozefest when compared to likeminded series like Indiana Jones, National Treasure, or even The Librarian. Thankfully Howard's follow-up, Angels & Demons, fares a bit better than its predecessor on pretty much every level.

After the events of The Da Vinci Code (the book occurs before Da Vinci, but the film is written as a sequel), professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to investigate a bomb threat from a secret society known as the Illuminati, who've also kidnapped four Vatican cardinals. Accompanying him is physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), recruited to recover a canister of antimatter stolen from the Large Hadron Collider. Together, and with the help of the Vatican police force, the two race across Rome to rescue the four cardinals and prevent the antimatter from being used to destroy Rome. Yes, you read that last part correctly.

The plot is twisted and convoluted in certain places, and it seems like writers Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp (not exactly a screenwriting pedigree) are desperate to up the tension and add suspense at every possible turn. Ticking clocks ("one cardinal will die every hour") are fine. It's what many action movies and thrillers are built around. But when you introduce the idea of rolling blackouts early on, there's no drama when our heroes' lives are endangered by it an hour later.

The scene I'm referring to turns out to be a red herring, and that's one of the film's key problems. There are far, far too many red herrings. If you haven't already figured out who's behind everything already, the red herrings force you to give up the chase and just turn your brain off. I'm willing to bet they're counting you to shut your brain off, because the film features a bizarre fourth act completely undoes all of the heroic drama that the climax could muster. The film seemed like it would actually go out on a high note, only to renege on it completely. It really doesn't work, and I'm not sure if the problem is with Koepp/Goldsman or Dan Brown.

But, for what it is, Angels & Demons does have its moments. The action may be on the mundane side, but the investigative side of the film is actually quite interesting. Whereas The Da Vinci Code felt like one long history lesson after another, Angels & Demons manages to balance the information without feeling like too much exposition. The film itself looks gorgeous, featuring great cinematography of some of Rome's most historic landmarks. Tom Hanks does well, but there's nothing groundbreaking about his performance. The real highlight of the film is Ewan McGregor, whose Carmelengo McKenna is perhaps the most interesting character in the film. He's young, seems poised for greatness, yet is all too conservative about his duty. Compared to the other clergy in the film, his is a character we want to learn more about, but are never afforded the chance.

If you're like me, and you enjoyed the premise of The Da Vinci Code more than the delivery of the film itself, you should enjoy Angels & Demons somewhat. It's not a great film by any means, but it is a fun diversion for an afternoon. It's decidedly average, but at least falls on the positive side of average.

3 stars (***) out of five.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Connor vs. Connor

Crossovers and spinoffs have been a part of storytelling ever since Odysseus and Aeneas left Troy going in opposite directions. Perhaps the most popular form of crossover fiction is the sci-fi mainstay "Franchise A vs. Franchise B". Alien vs. Predator. Robocop vs. Terminator. Batman vs. Superman. Star Trek meets the X-Men. Freddy vs. Jason. Army of Darkness vs. Marvel Zombies. Turtle vs. Bunny. I could go on all day. Few such crossovers ever really work, and most of them are just plain silly. But there's one crossover I'd like to propose for serious consideration.

Highlander vs. Terminator.

Now, sadly, I wasn't the first to think of this, but let's think about this for a second. What better fit for a franchise that constantly meddles with time travel than characters that transcend time? It's better than ninjas vs. pirates. It's immortals vs. robots, two character types that are fairly similar, if only on a base level. The only way to really kill either is to cut off the power source (head). Of course, the danger with Terminators is the fact that they're freaking legion, whereas the number of Highlander immortals, by their very nature, are dwindling. So that's a negative.

However, the great thing about the Highlander universe is that the only thing that really matters are the characters. You could drop Connor McLeod (or Duncan or whoever, doesn't really matter) into the Terminator universe without much difficulty. Unless he has the misfortune of being in a major city on Judgement Day, chances are he'll survive the fallout. But then comes the previously mentioned army of T-800s and Lord knows what else.

Here's where things get a little tricky. Unless a Terminator directly witnesses one immortal behead another, it's not going to know enough to do the same to the Highlander. It'll fire away at him, probably hit him a couple times, but it wouldn't kill him. Of course, a T-1000 wouldn't have much problem with that. Remember what happened to Todd in T2. No heads were removed, but the potential is definitely there. Ooh, there's a challenge for the Highlander... Of course, it's doubtful that Connor's sword would be enough to destroy even a T-800.

In my proposed Terminator/Highlander film, there would undoubtedly be more than one immortal. Otherwise, what's the point? Early in the film, Connor squares off against another immortal, only to have their duel interrupted by a Terminator. The two team up to incapacitate the robot, after which Connor catches his erstwhile partner off guard, beheads him and a Quickening ensues. Connor then gains all the knowledge of the other immortal, including key information on SkyNet. Weaknesses, plans, etc. Maybe this other immortal once worked for CyberDyne Systems. Then, Connor finds his way to the Resistance, where he helps John Connor concoct a plan to finally take out SkyNet.

Maybe John Connor doesn't believe McLeod. How could someone know so much about SkyNet unless they were actually a robot? So Connor tries shooting McLeod a few times. McLeod doesn't die. John Connor still isn't convinced. As far as he knows, McLeod is 100% machine. So they come up with a test. They place McLeod in front of a giant magnet. When switched on, the magnet does nothing. Maybe it picks up his sword. But not him. That's enough for John Connor, who agrees to let McLeod help, but still falsely suspects him of being some kind of trap set by SkyNet.

I realize what I just did was tantamount to fan fiction but, really, that's no worse than some of the other dumb crossovers we've seen. I even think this is a better idea than some of those. I think a Highlander would fit right into the upcoming Terminator movie. And really, with the Highlander franchise as labyrinthine and convoluted as it is, would anybody really care?

What do you think?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek 2009

... or as I will call it from now on, Star Trek Supplemental. Seriously though, the movie was a great achievement. It had about everything I wanted. Leonard Nimoy as Spock, a great cast (except John Cho and Zachary Quinto), and a nice origin story. It was action-packed, fun, and most of all, revitalizing. Let's face it everyone, this going from one Trekkie/Trekker to everyone else, the series had a lot in common with the current Republican Party. So much that it's actually very funny. How, I hear you say? Well.... People stopped watching Trek just as much as people left that party, it had been taken over by people obsessed with everything being canon/party line, and it's attempt to go back to it's roots (Enterprise/no spending) just didn't mesh with people anymore.

The series needed to get a mainstream audience to make more money. It needed to go moderate without pissing off its base. In most respects, the movie does this quite well. I'm very happy that the original canonical series and films are not affected here. Due to circumstances in this movie, we have a Back To The Future II situation where the "time line SKEWED into this tangent, bringing us to an alternate" Star Trek. I've heard many say that this was just an easy way out to dodge Trekkie loyalists. Well, they kind of had to do this. Trekkies are very anal. I should know. These are people who sometimes don't count Star Trek VI as canon because Gene Roddenberry didn't like it. In fact, most Trekkies loved this movie.

I didn't love this movie. I did really like it, but it didn't feel right to me, just like Enterprise and Star Trek Nemesis didn't. To me, Star Trek is about a few things. Without these, Star Trek would be simply another science fiction franchise. Star Trek is about exploring new worlds, the Federation hegemony, social commentary, and the trifecta of Bones, Spock, and Kirk. This movie gives us two of those pretty well in the trifecta and the hegemony. I can deal with not exploring new worlds. Most of the films didn't do that anyway, and even the shows left that mission after a while. Star Trek was first and foremost a social commentary though. Look at the best of the old episodes and that's what they are. Yes, even Wrath of Khan, because it was about the terrifying possibilities of what even a peaceful helpful tool could become with the Genesis device. People blame Rick Berman and Brannon Bragga for destroying Star Trek in the 1990s. They didn't. Trekkies did by being so devotional to canon. You know who else is like that with their series? George Lucas. And we see how that turned out. Lots of changes to once great movies.

As you can plainly see, I'm very conflicted with this movie. I understand this was needed, but I will miss the old series, and the next few years are going to be hell. Just like when Batman Begins came out, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon about how the original Trek movies and series were crap, and that those of us who didn't completely love the new movie are out of touch, nerds, and irrelevant. Can we fight back at that? No. It's useless. Today's movie culture dictates that you have to agree with the majority, or they'll beat you into the ground with the tyranny of majority. It's kinda like that first scene in Clockwork Orange with Alex and his friends beating up that old drunk guy while he's down. And ya know what? It makes me want to hate the new Star Trek when I really don't. I tell people I like it, but have issues with it, and they attack me. Sorry folks, new and cool doesn't exactly mean better. I just hope that in a few months people start to see the movie's shortcomings, like they did when Transformers got old. Everyone loved that when it came out, now it apparently sucks. I think it was okay.

People, movies do not have just two categories, Suck and Rule. There are movies that are mediocre, average, and good as well. This was a good movie. It was a mediocre Trek movie if you are comparing it to the ideals and outlines of the Trek series.

It truly is supplemental to me. It's a "what if" scenario that I'm okay with calling canon along with the original series. However, it is just an aside. I prefer the stories about the Federation working to better man and alien-kind and trying to make new allies to that of let's have a rootin' tootin' adventure about national defense. I mean, yeah, that's fine. It worked for this origin story. I just hope that future films in this series start to be about exploring new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations. Hey, it's possible. I trust that JJ Abrams will push for that. Heck, in some ways that's what Lost is about, even. I'm not sure I trust the writers of Transformers to do it though.

I know this wasn't really a review, but more of a critique. My review would be about the same as Joe's, which is right below this. However, I'd actually give the movie a better rating. It's a good movie by itself. Hmmm...

** out of ***** as a Star Trek film.

**** out of ***** as a movie by itself.

Star Trek

I was primed to love every minute of Star Trek. The trailer had me psyched to see it. Early word was that the film was one of the best Trek movies ever, perhaps even THE best. I bought my Burger King promo glasses, I rewatched a couple of the previous Trek movies and hoped that, at worst, J.J. Abrams would deliver a film that was at least better than Mission: Impossible III. Well, he at least succeeded that far, but only by so much. Abrams' prequel/reboot/whatever is an entertaining ride, no question, but it falters in trying too hard to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Possible spoilers. Fair warning.

The film opens with the USS Kelvin being attacked by a gargantuan Romulan mining vessel, captained by Nero (Eric Bana). The acting captain of the Kelvin just happens to be father to James T. Kirk, and the day just happens to be the day James is born. Baby James, his mother, and the rest of the crew escape while 'Captain' Kirk attacks Nero's ship head-on. Fast forward 25 years, where we meet back up with Jim (Chris Pine), who is dared to join Starfleet by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), who served under Kirk's father on the Kelvin. From there, we watch Kirk go through Starfleet Academy, verbally spar with a young commander named Spock (Zackary Quinto), find his way onto the brand spanking new Enterprise with an equally young crew, and then come face to face with Nero himself.

As a movie, it is certainly a step in the right direction from the decidedly less enteresting Insurrection and Nemesis. The production benefits from a mostly well-chosen cast and top notch effects work. Of this younger crew, Chris Pine and Karl Urban (Kirk and Bones, respectively) come off the best. Pine gets the reckless swagger of Jim Kirk down to a science, while Urban is a dead ringer for DeForest Kelley, both in appearance and performance. Additionally, Eric Bana's Nero is a character that is quite compelling for his limited role. Perhaps not on the level of Khan or the Borg Queen, but a character absolutely deserving of more screen-time. As this is an origin story (kind of), the movie relegates Nero to the background while we get acquainted with this new, younger Enterprise crew. His scheme, as genocidal and devastating though it may be, is ultimately shrugged off as a means of getting things in place for subsequent films.

Perhaps the most disappointing portrayal is Quinto as Spock. He's not bad, necessarily, but his take on Spock's emotionless visage is a constant wide-eyed stare and slightly pursed lips. It simply proves that his casting was purely aesthetic. He looks the part but can't quite act it. The problem is amplified by the fact that Leonard Nimoy himself shows up for about 20 minutes as the future version of Spock (or rather "Spock Prime"). The difference is staggering. In fact, Nimoy's role proves to be (ironically) the emotional high point of the film. There's a warmth in his portrayal of Spock that is absent from the majority of the film.

And I think that's the primary problem with this new Star Trek. The newness of everything is glaringly apparent in almost every aspect of the film. From the frantically paced plot to the equally fast editing and whiplash-inducing camerawork, to Abrams' over-indulgence on lens flares, everything about this movie smacks of the "dumb summer action movie" that Abrams clearly intended on making. That, in itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when it comes at the expense of the science and (yes) logic that the series always championed, it sort of defeats the whole purpose of Star Trek.

I could go on about how the new Enterprise looks like a flying iPod or how the crew's standard operating procedure seems to only consist of "Move over, let me do that," but it's pointless. The movie is, in fact, a dumb summer action movie, and on that front it succeeds. There's nothing stopping you from enjoying Star Trek on a visceral level. Even moviegoers with no working knowledge of the Star Trek universe will get a kick out of this film. For my part, I don't think the franchise needs to be playing around in Luke Skywalker's backyard. For this series to thrive, it needs to leave the space opera behind and, yes, boldly go into new sci-fi directions. Star Trek is certainly a fun ride, but there are a few major kinks that need to be worked out before the sequel arrives.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Bond Review #6: Never Say Never Again

Yes folks, we finally have one... A Bond movie that is also a "ugh" movie. It's very dated, it's boring, and sadly I must say that Octopussy, which is not one of the better Moore films, that came out the same year, was a better film.

The idea was to remake Thunderball, as the book rights were not owned by Cubby Broccoli, the producer of the EON James Bond pictures. Well, of course, EON did not like this idea, and the makers of this film and EON were in court every day of filming fighting over what could and could not be put in this movie. What could? Anything that was mentioned in the book Thunderball. What couldn't? Anything in the original Thunderball movie, or anything NOT in the book. It sounds impossible, right? Well, they did it SOMEHOW. The results are not very pleasing though.

We do get Sean Connery back to play Bond, which of course many people wanted to see. The problem with this is that Sean Connery was between his handsome phase, and his full white haired cool-looking phase that he was in, say when The Last Crusade came about. Here, Bond is balding, and he looks kind of ill throughout the whole thing. He kind of even looks worse than Roger Moore looked in Octopussy, which is pretty bad. Even the two sex scenes were kind of embarassing.

Well, how about the plot? The plot is that SPECTRE, run by Blofeld (Max Von Sydow), wants to of course plot extortion and terrorism. I mean, that's what two of those letters stand for in their name after all. One of SPECTRE's agents, Largo (Klaus Brandauer), had two nuclear bombs stolen, and is planning to use them in an extortion attempt on various governments for lots of money. Sound kinda stupid? Yeah, it is, even for Bond. You see, Thunderball was originally written as a script because Ian Fleming was getting tired of his books not being turned into movies. This script didn't get made, and so he turned it into a book. There was a reason it wasn't made. It's kind of stupid. Even when they eventually did make Thunderball as the fourth Bond film, it was a disappointment compared to the previous three films.

Surprisingly, this movie is directed by Irvin Kirshner, three years after he directed The Empire Strikes Back, and his first movie since that one. I won't blame the movie's shortcomings on him though. The music score is terrible because post-production was rushed. He originally wanted James Horner, but couldn't get him. He got a guy that Barbera Streisand worked with. Ugh. The plot is terrible because they legally had to stick to the book. Ugh. He did have good intentions for the movie, but he had a lot of hurdles he couldn't jump.

The movie came out in 1983, and it shows big time. The theme song is horribly dated, and I'd say the worst theme for a Bond movie. It really is a cold war story as well, as most 1980s Bond movies were. These things can't really be helped with a Bond movie though. They are all products of the time they were made in. It's usually one of the great things about Bond. It's like vintage wine. Just don't drink the bad years. 1983, I guess was a bad year with the recession and all.

Locations: 5/10 Bahamas, some Arabic region that is never named, London, the ocean. It's pretty typical Bond here. Some of it is shot rather beautifully, others really bland. Average.

Villains: 8/10 This is one place this movie does well. Brandauer is great as the villain Largo. He's carefully insane. You know, he seems sane on the exterior, but just underneath, he's a crazy psychopath. There's also Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush. She's a certifiable looney from the beginning. In fact, if you've seen Goldeneye's Xenia Onatopp, you've pretty much seen Fatima Blush. She's a sex obsessed assassin getting pleasure from killing. The other villain is only seen for a total of three minutes, but he gets third billing for the movie! Max Von Sydow plays Blofeld, complete with white kitty cat. He isn't given much to do really.

Bond Girl: 4/10 It's Kim Basinger playing Domino. Ya know, she was the one part I didn't like about Batman, and I don't like her much here either. I have never liked her in any movie I've seen. Sure she's pretty, but she plays the same...exact...character ever single time. She's never more than something pretty to look at while you wait for our hero to do something else. And even if she is pretty, she isn't drop dead gorgeous. Still, they could have done worse.

Direction/Design: 2/10 Now I know I said I do not blame Kirshner for the film being so Ugh-worthy. The production designer though... he gets a LOT of the blame. It has exactly 3 good sequences. The video game in the arcade, the underwater chase of Bond by the tiger shark, and the stuff in the health spa. Other than those aspects, this movie is pretty much a complete failure design-wise. It's as bland as the year 1983 probably was.

Theme Song: 0/10 It's god awful. They play it during the opening scenes, as they couldn't imitate the EON Bond films. I'd have prefered black on white text to this. It ruins the scene. The song is bland, it's boring, it's annoying, it should never have existed. Yes people, it's that bad.

Overall: 3/10 It took every ounce of willpower I had to watch this movie again with the commentary on. I can not for the life of me figure out why this movie made 160 million dollars in the box office. I guess people were just lured in by Connery. This is one I may watch once every five years or so, but no more. Octopussy even was better than this, and it came out the same year.
The blu-ray is not the best. It's got okay picture and audio quality, but it was not put through the Lowry process, not being an official Bond film. The extras are a bit on the fluffy side. You get a trailer, 4 featurettes on various aspects of the film, and a commentary track. The most interesting of these is the featurette on the movie's legal troubles. The commentary track with Kirshner too often falls into telling us what's going on on-screen.

James Bond Reviews will return next week in... Moonraker.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ugh: The Stupids

I could just end it here.  That poster is the funniest part of the entire movie (it's funny because it's true).  However, we must soldier onward...

Sure, with a movie titled The Stupids, you have to expect it to be stupid on some level, perhaps in some kind of cleverly satirical way.  But no.  This is different.  This movie goes beyond stupid and into a level of filmic idiocy only reserved for Air Bud sequels and direct-to-video sex comedies.  I have to believe that John Landis was messing with us here.  Now, granted, I'm sure a project like The Stupids was all he could muster up at this point in his career, and he's clearly trying to make the most of the material, but not even the man who brought us The Blues Brothers and Animal House could save this one.

Tom Arnold stars as Stanley Stupid, the dumb patriarch of an even dumber family, who discovers that his garbage is continuously being stolen.  He trails the 'thieves' back to the landfill where he witnesses a black market arms deal, instead believing that it's part of a conspiracy to steal everyone's mail, all run by an evil genius named Sender (as in 'Return to Sender').  The family's subsequent adventure getting into and out of mortal danger, making a series of horribly, yes, stupid assumptions, and just generally engaging in a number of eye-rollingly embarrassing activities.

So, why exactly does The Stupids make me go 'Ugh'?  Well, for one, this movie seems like decent material for a dark comedy, or at least some kind of smart satire.  Instead, Landis and his crew seemed perfectly content to take this thing down the kids-comedy route.  The thing is, certain gags or scenes might undoubtedly go above some kids' heads, or simply seem too dark.  You can see Landis' desire to take things darker at pretty much every turn, but for whatever reason, it never happens.

So we've established that the movie is one giant missed opportunity.  That alone can't make it ugh-worthy, can it?  No.  There's also the matter of craft.  John Landis' style just doesn't work for this particular film.  You can just tell that he's aching to toss in one more violent gag or explosion or anything to make The Stupids enjoyable even for him.  I'm sure the finale, a bizarre military shootout in a warehouse full of explosives, made him as giddy as a kid in a candy store.

Tom Arnold is constantly mugging for the camera, clearly assuming that that is the height of comedy.  I'll admit it, I laughed when he turned to the camera, stared straight into the lens and shouted, "Oh my God!"  Other than that, Arnold's just not that funny.  He talks his way through a poorly staged rendition of "I'm My Own Grandpa," which, for some reason, plays (in its entirety) over the end credits.  

There are three actors that appear in the film whose presence here simply vexes me.  First, there's Robert Keeshan (aka Captain Kangaroo), who pops in and out as a museum curator named Sender.  He ends up being the object of Stupid's misguided pursuit to end Sender's reign of terror (something I never thought I'd ever have to type).  In Stupid's fantasy scenario, Sender is played by none other than Christopher Lee, clearly doing the best he can with his limited screentime and even more limited material.  

Then there's Mark Metcalf, playing the colonel that the Stupids chase after, who actually IS involved in a black arms deal.  Landis fans will recognize him from Animal House, but I better remember him from his Wile E. Coyote-ish characters from two Twisted Sister videos.  Neither of these men have much to do here, and you'd be better off watching the videos linked above, an episode of Captain Kangaroo, or The Man with the Golden Gun.

The Stupids.  I can't, in good conscience give such a film more than 1.5 (*1/2) stars.  Ugh.

Monday, May 4, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The 2009 summer movie season began this past weekend not with a bang, but with the constant snikting of claws. As a typical, summer action film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is certainly a fun movie, every bit as entertaining as any other action film you're likely to find this summer. As an X-Men film, however, the end product is considerably lacking.

The film begins in the mid 1840s with an all-too-brief scene featuring the death of the man young Logan (here called James for some reason) calls 'father'. He and his brother, Victor, then flee into the night, transitioning into the film's title sequence, where we see the two as grown men, fighting in every major US war since the War Between the States. It must be said that this is a fantastic sequence, showcasing not only the fact that these two are basically ageless immortals (regenerative healing factors, potato, potahto), but also Logan's growing disdain for Victor's growing bloodlust.

The film proper picks up in Vietnam, after the two have just been executed (or not) by firing squad. Here, the two are recruited by military man Stryker (Danny Huston) to a team of mutants embarking on covert operations in Africa. We meet a number of mutants here, several of which turn up in varying capacities later. Logan (Huge Ackman, natch) decides to quit the team at the end of the first act, and the remainder of the film plays out like one part Highlander, one part Death Wish, one part X2. Years later, Victor (Liev Schrieber, acting circles around Tyler Mane from the first film) begins picking off his former teammates, which inevitably draws our hero back to Stryker, who offers to make him indestructible in order to hunt down and kill Victor. Thus, we enter the Weapon X part of the plot.

I feel like I've explained the plot enough, but saying any more wouldn't really matter, because after Wolverine gets his signature claws, the plot degenerates into "Meet mutant X, fight mutant X, mutant X takes us to mutant Y, repeat". The first forty-five minutes or so actually represent a decent Wolverine film, at least on par with the original X-Men, easily miles ahead of where Brett Ratner took things in The Last Stand. Sadly, as Robert Frost would put it, nothing gold can stay. The way the second half of the film handles character is basically what kills the movie for me. After the care that was taken to introduce characters like Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and Wraith (Will.I.Am), the film decides to take not only the comics, but also its own continuity and toss it out the window.

The first sign of trouble comes when Wolverine encounters The Blob (Kevin Durand). Early in the film, we meet the character, whose power is basically his tankproof skin. Fast forward 45 minutes, he's now a morbidly obese boxer. This is the Blob we know from the comics, the Blob who was always a morbidly obese carnival act. I get why they made the change for the film, it just made sense. But it's only the beginning. Blob points us in the direction of Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit (Taylor Kitsch). Here, his original power of charging objects (which then explode) somehow gets translated into explosive telekinesis. Sure, his MO is throwing playing cards, we know that he's a skilled card player, but that in no way denotes an ability to make playing cards float through air. Also, he can now apparently do any and everything with a bo-staff. These things, while cool to watch on screen, are just categorically wrong.

Then there's Cyclops who, in his brief cameo, showed that he can now shoot heat rays out of his eyes rather than the concussive beams that he's used not only since 1963, but also in the three previous films. It's an incongruity that I'm glad I'm not the only one to have spotted. Then, of course, there's the whole Deadpool fiasco. In that instance, I'm okay with the changes they made (well, a few anyway), because it does at least work within the context of the story. Still, though, it's indicative of the filmmakers deciding to do what looks cool rather what the fans want. I doubt any fan of Gambit or Deadpool is clamoring for more of the characters as portrayed in this film.

And that, I think, is what this film ultimately comes to. As much as Tom Rothman and everyone at Fox claim that this movie is for "the fans", it's clearly not. This is one of those movies whose inevitable failings tend to get chalked up to it being "just a dumb summer action movie." This is a movie for fans of the other movies, sure, but the care that Bryan Singer took in creating the X-universe is all but gone here, replaced with on-the-nose soap opera flourishes and CG claws that look two or three more renders away from looking at all realistic.. Whenever Logan looks up and screams over the dead body of a loved one, we laugh rather than feel for him. When Logan and Victor race toward one another with the intent of killing one (three times, even) another, we don't care because we know both will fight each other once again in the 2000 X-Men film. Moments like this are peppered throughout the film, and do little to keep us invested in Logan's journey.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine entertains on a purely visceral level, but for the "fans", there are too many holes, incongruities, and false notes to really stir up much enthusiasm. For their part, Liev Schrieber and Hugh Jackman are a lot of fun to watch together (and apart), but the plot, continuity, and barrage of special effects simply can't keep up.

2.5 stars (**1/2) out of five.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bond Review #5: Goldfinger

Well here we are again. Another week, another Bond movie. This one is renowned worldwide. It’s got some of the most memorable set pieces such as the giant laser beam ready to emasculate our hero. It’s got the Bond girl with the most memorable name. It’s got the first Bond theme song with words during the title credits… one that has gone down in history as one of the most memorable Bond songs. There are so many classic things about this movie.

came out in book form in 1959. It was the seventh Bond novel. Five years later, it became the third movie in the series. Dr. No and From Russia With Love were big hits, and expectations were huge for the third adventure. It’s very obvious that those expectations were met and surpassed. The movie launched the world into Bondmania. But how did it accomplish that? What’s so different about this movie as compared to the first two films?

Well, to begin with, this is one damned gimmicky flick. Bond had gadgets in From Russia With Love, but they were practical, and it was all in one briefcase. With this movie, we get introduced to the Q Branch labs, where there are several insane tests going on while Q is giving Bond a rundown on his newly issued equipment. This is the first time James Bond is given a cool, gadget filled car! (Well, that’s used on screen anyway…) A car with an ejector seat?! Why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? Machine guns, bullet screen, smokescreen, oil spill… It’s almost Speed Racer-light! (Okay, maybe not) Also we have Oddjob, Goldfinger’s Korean henchman with the steel rimmed hat that he throws to kill people. Huh?! Or what about killing someone and then painting them gold… in the nude, just as a calling card? Killing a guy slowly by strapping him to a table with a giant laser beam coming slowly up between his legs?

I guess I’m just trying to say that this movie is so out there that it’s damned cool! With all it’s gimmickiness, it launched the Bondmania with the items that came out in support of the film. A hit single by Shirley Bassey, toys for kids, more mainstream interest in the Bond books, and so on.

The movie concerns Bond being told to find out what this guy Goldfinger is up to. Somehow he’s controlling the gold market, and MI6 can’t figure out how! After Bond messes with Goldfinger’s token girl and makes him lose money in a card game, Goldfinger has the girl killed and painted gold. Bond continues to follow Goldfinger, getting caught quite a few times only to escape. Well, this stops after he’s taken out of the country into Kentucky. There, he learns that Goldfinger no longer wants to control just European gold supply, but America’s too! He has to try to get Goldfinger’s crack pilot, Mrs. Pussy Galore, to somehow help, but is she immune to his charms?

Seriously, this isn’t my favorite movie in the series. It’s not even my favorite Connery film. However, it is a strong movie. It’s fun, it’s intriguing, it’s suspenseful, and it’s the reason Bond is still around to this day. It added essential parts to the successful formula that Bond now uses. This brought gadgets, the idea that more girls are better, and the pop title song. I think if the Bond movies had stuck to the same style as the previous two, the series wouldn’t be around today. Those movies are just as good as this one, but this movie set this series apart from the likes of Hitchcock or other run of the mill spy movies. It was epic!

Locations: 7/10 We have beautiful countryside here in abundance. Kentucky hills, Miami Beach, Switzerland… Like all early Bond films, this is also a travelogue. This is the first time that Bond is filmed partially in America. It worked well here, but not so well a few films from now. I’m still amazed at the interior Fort Knox set. It sort of makes up for the fact that Goldfinger really doesn’t have a fortress. He lives on a Kentucky horse ranch…

Villain: 10/10 “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” Some of the most famous words in Bond lexicon, spoken by Auric Goldfinger. Man, this guy is badass. He gases his own flunkies, is willing to kill off an entire town, almost succeeds in splitting Bond in half and doesn’t even have the want to watch it happen… Man he’s cool…. In a creepy way. (The producers decided to get Gert Frobe to play him by seeing him play a child molester in a movie.)

Bond Girls: 10/10 We’ve got a case of the classics here. Jill and Tilly Masterson, both killed by Oddjob, but both very beautiful. Jill of course is then covered in gold paint, which is one of the most remembered shots in Bond history. Then we have the ever popular Pussy Galore. I still wonder how they got away with that name in 1964! Ms. Galore is every bit James Bond’s equal. She always seems to be one step ahead of him. It’s just too bad she doesn’t come in until the last half of the movie. She’s played by Honor Blackman, who is known for playing Cathy Gale in The Avengers. A few films later, the other major Avengers girl, Diana Rigg, would also become a Bond girl.

Direction/Design: 10/10 This is one beautiful movie. It’s hard to believe that the beginning scenes in Miami are mostly shot on a soundstage. The blending of location to soundstage is unbelievable. The movie is also more kenetic than it’s predecessors. There’s more action here, and with a different director, things are done differently. This is the first Bond film directed by Guy Hamilton, and it’s the best of the four Bond movies he ended up doing. If there’s one thing this guy knew how to do, it was make things pretty. This is the only time, however, that he ended up shooting a Bond movie with a great script, sadly.

Theme Song: 8/10 Why not ten for this, if it’s so iconic? Because it’s so darned cheesy. People make fun of this song like gangbusters. It’s so over the top that you can’t help it. Sure, Thunderball is cheesier, but it sounds like she’s singing a lusty love song to Goldfinger himself… an obese, kinda creepy looking bad guy. It kinda ruins the intended effect I think.

Overall: 10/10 I know that doesn’t add up to the above scores, but that was never my intention for these overall things…. It’s just how it worked out for the first 4 reviews. This is an essential Bond movie, and it’s a classic for a reason. It’s a great movie, not just a great Bond movie.

The blu-ray was fantastic. There’s even more special features here than on most Bond blu-rays. The normal making of is here, but there’s also a longer documentary on the Goldfinger phenomenon. It’s very interesting. There are also of course two commentaries and various other little things to keep you informed and occupied. The picture quality was astounding, even in the shots where opticals were used. Sound quality was also great, though don’t expect too much surround. It was originally mono, ya know.

James Bond will return with the review of… Never Say Never Again.