Month: March 2012

Wrath of The Titans

2012

Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Produced by Basil Iwanyk and Polly Cohen Johnsen

Screenplay by Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson

Story by Greg Berlanti

Most of my friends disowned me after my coming out in favor of the 2010 “Clash of The Titans” and my saying that I liked it a lot.  They saw my liking of the film as a betrayal of the original version that was the last movie done by stop motion visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.  I never understand why nowadays people feel it necessary to have to like one version of a movie over another.  Can’t you like two versions of a movie for different reasons?  And one of the reasons why I liked 2010’s “Clash of The Titans” is that it wasn’t a slavish remake of the original. It took the basic story and put its own spin on it.  Much like how those ancient Greeks took the original myths and legends and every time they retold the story, they added stuff on or left stuff out they didn’t think was important.

It’s the same reason why I like WRATH OF THE TITANS.  It has many of the same characters as the previous movies and adds some new ones to change up the character interaction dynamics.  It gives Perseus a new motivation to go on an heroic quest.  It gets in what I think are some knowing, loving winks to the Harryhausen movie.  Bubo the mechanical owl makes another cameo appearance that I didn’t expect, didn’t see coming and made me laugh as the scene he appears in played out.  And like the previous movie, I was surprised that I liked it a lot more than I thought I would.

Perseus (Sam Worthington) has been living peacefully for ten years, earning his daily bread as a fisherman.  He’s been raising his son Helius (John Bell) alone as his wife Io died giving birth.  Perseus is happy with his life and says so to his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) who comes to Perseus for help.  Since men no longer pray to the gods their power is fading away and so they cannot keep imprisoned the demons kept in the underworld prison of Tartarus.  Perseus has no wish to become involved again in the business of the gods.

It’s up to Zeus, Poseidon (Danny Huston) Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Zeus’ other son Ares (Edgar Ramirez) to go down into Tartarus and fix things.  But it turns out to be a trap.  Hades and Ares have cut a deal with the imprisoned Kronos, the most powerful of The Titans: they drain Zeus’ power to free Kronos and they will be part of the new pantheon of gods once Kronos is back on top.

Poseidon gets away and gives his trident to Perseus, charging him with passing the weapon on to Poseidon’s demigod son Agenor (Toby Kebbell) Perseus goes one better. After rounding up Agenor and Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) he sets out to descend into Tartarus and rescue Zeus.  To do this he’ll need the help of Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) who constructed Tartarus and the insanely impossible labyrinth the intrepid band have to navigate and survive to reach Zeus.  And even after that, Perseus must recover two more powerful weapons to join with the Trident of Poseidon to form The Spear of Triam, the only weapon that can stop Kronos.

I really enjoyed WRATH OF THE TITANS because it’s so unpretentious.  This isn’t a movie that’s out to reinvent the genre.  Its sole purpose is to tell an entertaining adventure fantasy story for 100 minutes and I felt entertained once it was over. Rosamund Pike takes over as Andromeda from Alexa Davalos who played the role in “Clash of The Titans” and she brings a whole new energy to the role.  Which is welcome as Andromeda has much more to do in this movie, strapping on a sword and fighting right alongside Perseus.  Toby Kebbell brings some welcome humor to the adventure as the son of Poseidon who is much more of a trickster than the heir to the throne of the God of the Sea.  Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes have a lot of screen time together in this one in a really nicely performed character arc revolving around their characters that is brought to a resoundingly satisfying conclusion.  Sam Worthington appears more relaxed in this movie and allows Perseus some moments of warmth and humor and he even gets to smile.  I’ve liked Edgar Ramirez ever since seeing him in “Carlos” and he brings a good intensity to his role as Ares as if he’s been doing this kind of movie all his life.

So should you see WRATH OF THE TITANS?  If you saw the 2010 “Clash of The Titans” and didn’t like it then there’s no reason why you should want to see this one. But if like me you did enjoy it then I see no reason why you wouldn’t want to see this one.

100 minutes

PG-13

Clash of The Titans (2010)

2010

Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures

Directed by Louis Letettier

Produced by Richard D. Zanuck

Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay

Based on the 1981 motion picture “Clash of The Titans” Directed by Desmond Davis and Written by Beverley Cross

When it was confirmed that a remake of the classic 1981 “Clash of The Titans” would be happening, fans of that movie sent up offerings to the Gods of Film that the movie would not suck.  The overwhelming consensus seemed to be that the movie would try to copy the magic of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion visual effects through CGI. I admit myself I had misgivings.  I’ll be the first to admit that 1981’s “Clash of The Titans” isn’t Mr. Harryhausen’s best work.  It was his last film and he knew that his time was over due to a small film called “Star Wars” that had ushered in a new style of special effects techniques that could be done faster and cheaper.  He went out in style, though and while his “Clash of The Titans” isn’t his best movie, it is a helluva lot of fun to watch and one of my all-time favorite movies.

The strength of this version of CLASH OF THE TITANS doesn’t come from it trying to be exactly like the previous movie.  We get three signature scenes of the 1981 version: The Medusa stalking Perseus and his men in the ruins of an ancient temple.  Perseus stealing the magic eye of The Stygian Witches and forcing them to tell him how to kill The Kraken.  And Perseus facing off against The Kraken.  We even get to hear Liam Neeson intone those immortal words; “Release The Kraken!”  But this CLASH OF THE TITANS goes into a different direction due to the tweaking of the motivations of the main characters.  And there are a couple of nice nods to Mr. Harryhausen’s work.  Hades commands a squadron of harpies that look a lot like the harpies from “Jason and The Argonauts.”  Bubo the mechanical owl has a cameo.  The giant scorpions reminded me of the giant scorpions in the original, naturally.  But they also reminded me of the giant animals from “The Mysterious Island”

In this one, Perseus (Sam Worthington) doesn’t find out he’s the son of Zeus (Liam Neeson) until he’s up to his eyeballs in his quest to find a way to destroy The Kraken.  He’s told of his immortal origins by Io (Gemma Arterton) while he’s being held prisoner in the city of Argos.  Perseus has just seen his adopted family killed by Hades (Ralph Fiennes) Brought to the city of Argos, he is witness to another bloody rampage by Hades who informs King Cepheus (Vincent Regan) that he will unleash The Kraken in ten days unless Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is given up as a sacrifice.  All of this is part of a long game by Hades to influence humans so that they will stop worshipping the gods and start to fear them.  Zeus and the other gods grow weaker as a result while Hades grows stronger as his power is nourished by fear and hatred.  Hades has been resentful of Zeus for eons ever since Zeus tricked him into becoming Lord of The Underworld and he figures it’s time he got the chance to live among the clouds and walk around in sparkly armor like the rest of the gods.

Upon learning that Perseus is a demigod, King Cepheus asks him to lead his personal guard to find a way to save his daughter.  Perseus agrees.  Not because he’s in love with Andromeda as in the original.  He’s hellbent on revenging his murdered family and spitting in the collective eye of the gods while he does it.

Unlike the original, we get to know the soldiers that accompany Perseus on his quest, especially their leader, Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) who trains Perseus to fight and challenges him to embrace his dual heritage as man and god for the betterment of all and not reject it out of childish spite.  It’s a good relationship between the two.  And the characterization of the soldiers makes them a mythological version of “The Dirty Dozen” and not just a nameless bunch of red shirts.

And I like how in this version, Perseus actually has to work for his victories.  He’s given an enchanted sword and the use of the winged horse Pegasus but he prefers not to use either one until he realizes that unless he makes peace with himself he will never save Andromeda.

It sounds like there’s a little more psychological and philosophical depth here than in the original and there is.  But it doesn’t get in the way of the action and there is enough to satisfy.  This is another movie that people love to bash because of the CGI but I’m not one of them.  The stalking scene with The Medusa here doesn’t live up to the original, I’ll admit.  It’s nowhere near as creepy as the original which still gives me goose bumps when I watch it.  But it’s effective in doing its job in bringing a mythological world and it’s creatures to life.

So should you see 2010’s CLASH OF THE TITANS?  If you didn’t see it in theaters because you listened to those who told you how lousy the CGI effects were and how wooden the acting is and that the story stunk, I’m here to tell you that it’s nowhere near that bad.  I’m not going to lie and tell you it’s a masterpiece.  But I am going to tell you that’s it’s a movie worth your time if you’re looking for solid entertainment.  It’s not the Ray Harryhausen version and it’s not supposed to be.  It’s its own movie and it earns that on its own strengths.  Enjoy.

106 minutes

PG-13

The Hunger Games

2012

Lionsgate

Directed by Gary Ross

Produced by Nina Jacobson

Screenplay by Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray

Based on “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

In the interest of full disclosure I should start out by saying that I haven’t read the book the movie THE HUNGER GAMES is based on nor did I have any intention of reading it.  Now before you start jumping up and down and calling me a hater, hear me out.  THE HUNGER GAMES is a Young Adult novel and I generally don’t read Young Adult novels because…well, let’s face it: I’m not a Young Adult.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t read it if recommended to me by folks I trust.  I ain’t that much of a snob.  It’s just that I leave the Young Adult novels to the young adults.  After all, there are things I read that I think should be strictly for adults my age that they shouldn’t be reading.  It’s all about respecting boundaries for me.

But I ended up seeing THE HUNGER GAMES because of a couple of reasons: the first is that since the movie opened there has been a small firestorm due to some really nasty and unpleasant racially inflammatory tweets going around.  Seems as if some ‘fans’ of the book were upset upon seeing the movie and that some their beloved characters were (horrors!) played by black actors and actresses.  Now if they are fans of the book as they claim they they must not have read the descriptions of the characters.  From what I’ve read, the way Suzanne Collins describes a lot of the characters they could be biracial or black.  If you’ve been hanging out here for any length of time or listened to me on Better In the Dark then you’ve heard me quote Harlan Ellison: “We are not entitled to our opinions;  we are entitled to our informed opinions.”  So I felt that in order to know what I was talking about if this subject came up in discussion with my friends and/or enemies, I should at least see the movie.

The second reason?  Patricia wanted to see it.

Before jumping into the movie proper I should get out of the way that I don’t see what the fuss about the black characters are.  The way the characters are written, they could honestly have been played by any ethnicity.

THE HUNGER GAMES take place in a future North America that has been devastated by war.  Rebuilt into the nation of Panem it is not divided into 48 states but 13 Districts.  District 13 attempted to overthrow the oppressive government with no success.  Ever since then, The Capitol of Panem created The Hunger Games.  A yearly competitive televised pageant in which two teenagers from each District between the ages of 12 to 18 are selected by lottery.  The teens are trained, placed in an arena and fight until only one is left alive.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to save her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) from The Hunger Games.  Along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)  she is sent to The Capitol for training.  They have an entire staff to supervise them including chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) himself a survivor of The Hunger Games and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) their stylist.

In between training and televised interviews with Hunger Games commentator Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) Abernathy struggles to get Katniss to open up and be more friendly to attract ‘sponsors’ who will help her stay alive through the competition. The situation is complicated by Peeta, who during his interview claims to have been in love with Katniss ever since they were children.  But is he telling the truth or is he playing to the audience, hoping to win favor from sponsors?  And does any of this matter when they’re in the arena?

For a movie that promises mass slaughter, THE HUNGER GAMES doesn’t deliver.  In fact, most of the killings take place off camera and the ones that we do see are shot in that mollyfoggin’ shaky cam so that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.  I enjoyed the look of the movie as it has wonderful costume and production design.  The Capital feels like a real city inhabited by real people.  But I don’t understand the point of building us up with the promise of seeing these characters fight to the death and then not showing it.  And the movie is so emotionally distant so that when someone does die it has no impact, no feeling.  At least not to me as I feel I never got to know any of these characters at all.  It doesn’t help that the movie is directed with such seriousness and grim despair.  The movie badly needs energy and it just doesn’t have it at all.  It’s actually pretty dull going most of the way.  My thanks go to Woody Harrelson and surprisingly, Lenny Kravitz as the both of them are highly entertaining to watch and they kept my interest up.

So should you see THE HUNGER GAMES?  Chances are if you’re a fan of the books then you already have or plan to do so and so nothing I say will change your mind.  And that’s okay.  I get the very strong idea that this movie was made very much with the fans in mind and that’s okay. If you’re curious, check it out. It’s satisfying entertainment, the visual equivalent of fried chicken and baked potato.

142 minutes

PG-13

Better In The Dark 126.5

 

 

 

 

Episode 126.5: DREW STRUZAN, JOHN CARTER, KATHARINE McPHEE AND YOU…

It’s our first Point Five Episode, where the Boys From Brooklyn discuss movie posters, marketing, the true definition of being et, and former American Idol contestants in their underwear. Even though Point Fives are shorter mini-sodes, it doesn’t mean you won’t get the usual Tom and Derrick mixture of hardcore knowledge, tangents and comedy. You don’t want sharks with cameras attached to chew off your butt, so get to clicking!

Join us now at www.earth-2.net!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trouble With Angels

 

 

1966

Columbia Pictures 

Directed by Ida Lupino

Produced by William Frye

Screenplay by Blanche Hanalis

Based on a novel by Jane Trahey

Before I start this review it’s only fair that all you action adventure/horror/crime thriller fans please go on upstairs and avail yourselves of the refreshments provided.  This isn’t a review for you.  Unless of course you’ve got a daughter, younger sister or niece you want to spend time with but worry about what kind of movie you can watch together that hasn’t got a bit of bad language and/or nudity.  A movie that’s actually fun to watch and promotes positive values.  But also quite funny in its own way.  Not Laugh-Out-Belly-Laugh-Loud but funny in that it’s got a sharp take on how younger and older women interact in a setting that most of us never get to see.

1966’s THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS takes place in  a Catholic girls school over a period of four years where we watch the emotional and spiritual growth of two of the main characters: Mary Clancy (Haley Mills) and Rachel Devery (June Harding).  The two girls are a perfect match: Mary’s a born leader and Rachel is a born follower.  As you watch their friendship develop and grow you can’t help but think that maybe this is how Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz would have been if they’d met as young girls.  We get an idea of how much of a problem Mary is going to be as in the first scene of the movie she’s smoking a cigarette on the train taking her to The St. Francis Academy For Girls and mouths off to Bruce Wayne’s Aunt Harriet herself (Madge Blake) The character is never identified by name but I like to think this is actually Aunt Harriet.  Just the movie and comic book geek in me at working to make a connection, I guess.

Once Mary and Rachel arrive at St. Francis they meet the nuns who will be their teachers for the next four years: Sister Clarissa (Mary Wickes) is more at home on a basketball court or fixing a car engine than in the chapel.  The impossibly beautiful Sister Constance (Camilla Sparv) is going off to work with a colony of lepers, an act that totally baffles Mary as she can’t imagine anyone taking the risk of sacrificing such beauty.  Sister Liguori (Marge Redmond) uses horse handicapping as the way to teach her girls mathematics.  And there’s a bunch of other nuns, all with their own eccentric traits but they’re used as insights into their characters and not just as props.  And then there’s Reverend Mother (Rosalind Russell) who immediately clashes with Mary and a lot of the movie is about how these two very different women of very different ages in life and from very different backgrounds but so similar in attitude start out disliking each other immensely but grow to respect and admire the other.  Reverend Mother’s clashing with Mary soon turns into a war of wills as it seems as if Mary will simply not adhere to the rules of the school and indeed, goes out of her way to pull elaborate pranks that continually disrupt and cause chaos.  There’s a great scene where Reverend Mother is on the verge of expelling Mary from the school but has a talk with her old friend Sister Liguori that gives you the distinct impression that in their youth, Reverend Mother and Sister Ligouri weren’t all that different from Mary and Rachel.  Reverend Mother explains to her old friend why she won’t expel Mary and the resolution of that scene had even an old grinch like me feeling a tug at the heart strings.

There isn’t a plot in this movie to speak of.  It’s really a series of incidents that take place over the four years.  But the transitions between one year and another are really imaginative due to the direction of Ida Lupino.  Most of us know her as an actress but she’s famous inHollywoodfor being one of the first female directors.  And a damn good director that earned her respect.  Ida Lupino has shots where she shows the passing of seasons in unobtrusive yet innovative ways.  A character will be bundled up in winter clothes and look out a window, see other characters playing volleyball and suddenly we’re into the next year of school and its spring.

Haley Mills is quite good is this movie.  She was looking to break away from the image she had while working at Disney and while I’m not familiar with her Disney work I liked what she did in this movie.  I’m also not all that familiar with Rosalind Russell but she was great as Reverend Mother.  I enjoyed every moment she was on screen and she has a simply wonderful scene with Haley Mills where she talks about the life she wanted before she found her calling as a nun.  If you see this movie, watch the expressions on both their faces.  They convey far more than their words.

So should you see THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS?  Like I said earlier, if you’re a mother looking to watch a movie with your daughters aged 8-12 or an aunt looking to spend time with your nieces, by all means, give this movie a try.  It’s got wonderful performances by Rosalind Russell, Haley Mills, Marge Redmond, Mary Wickes and a great cameo by Jim Hutton.  It won’t appeal to most of you bloodthirsty maniacs who normally read my reviews and are by now wondering what I’m currently smoking, snorting or sniffing but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of viewing or respect.  The next time you pick out movies to rent or stream on Netflix, give this one a try.  It’s a lot of fun for the audience it’s intended for and even for those who want to step outside of their normal movie habits a bit.

112 minutes

Rated PG

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor

 

2008

Universal

Directed by Rob Cohen

Produced by Sean Daniel, Bob Ducsay, James Jacks and Stephen Sommer

Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar

Since I’m a major fan of pulp action adventure there’s very little chance of you getting a bad review of THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR outta me.  I think it’s only fair to tell you that up front.  Even though I did miss the direction of Stephen Sommers and Maria Bello is no substitute for Rachel Weisz.  And yes, the climatic battle between the two undead armies did go on about five minutes longer than it should have and it’s true that Brendan Fraser didn’t have to yell: “I hate mummies!” every ten minutes.  But I was willing to overlook all that and just allow myself to enjoy what is essentially a B-movie with an A-budget.  It’s not the best of ‘The Mummy’ movies but it does exactly what it’s designed to do and really, that’s all I ask from any movie.

Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) live in a splendid English country mansion big enough to have its own zip code.  They’ve retired from their life of wild adventuring and while Rick attempts to become a proper country squire, Evelyn has become a best-selling writer, using the adventures she’s had with Rick as the basis for her books.  The adventuring is handled now by their son, Alex (Luke Ford) who is something of a maverick like his dad and has quit college to join an expedition to discover and excavate the tomb of Han, The Dragon Emperor (Jet Li)

 

Alex soon learns that he’s in way over his head as there are two factions fighting over the mummy of Emperor Han.  It turns out that Han was cursed by the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) more than two thousand years ago to remain encased in living rock but he can be revived if one knows how.  One faction knows how and it involves a giant diamond, The Eye Of Shangri-La while the other faction mostly consists of Zi Juan’s daughter Lin (Isabella Leong) and Zi herself (didn’t I mention both mother and daughter are immortal?  I didn’t?  Sorry, my bad) Rick and Evelyn are soon heading to Shanghai to help out their son, picking up Evelyn’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and a half-drunk pilot, Mad Dog Maguire as backup.

It’s a race against time to find the mystical city ofShangri-La and stop Han from reclaiming his humanity and his awesome mystic powers to control the five elements (earth, air, fire, water and metal) which he needs to resurrect his army of warriors and resume his ambition of ruling the world.  Considering that he’s now in the year 1946 and his men are armed with spears and swords while modern armies have bombs, machine guns and tanks, I must say that admire Han’s confidence.  Me, I don’t think that the modern world would have sweated Han too much, even with his magic powers but then we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we?

How much you want to see this movie depends on how much you like pulp adventure, Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh or the previous ‘Mummy’ movies I would guess.  The ‘Mummy’ movies have been looked upon as ‘Indiana Jones Lite’ but I think that’s unfair.  There’s more enough room for two globe-hopping adventurers in the movies today and indeed, back in the 30’s and 40’s where these movies are set you could go to your local theater or newsstand and there were literally dozens of movies and magazines featuring two-fisted men of action that were the grandfathers of both Rick O’Connell and Indiana Jones.

What sets the ‘Mummy’ movies apart and especially TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is the interaction between this family of adventurers.  Alex has grown up into his own man and his style of adventuring is different from his mom and his dad’s.  But even though father and son have their differences they can still bond over mutual interests such as what’s the best machine gun to use against a rebel Chinese army trying to kill you or exactly how much dynamite it takes to blow up a golden shrine.  Evelyn is trying hard to be a lady and a respectable mom but she’d much rather be raiding tombs and destroying evil mummies trying to take over the world.  Jonathan has become a successful nightclub owner but he drops it all to help out his brother-in-law, sister and nephew save the world.  Of course the fact that Rick and Evelyn have The Eye Of Shangri-La has nothing to do with it.

By now Brendan Fraser can do a ‘Mummy’ movie without thinking about it.  He turns in a dependable, solid performance and here he’s not just a rough-and-tumble mercenary with a quick quip for every occasion.  He’s now a husband and father and he takes a little more time to think about what he’s doing and how it affects the people he loves.  Luke Ford does an okay job but I liked the relationship between Rick and Alex better in the previous ‘Mummy’ movie.  Here Alex has an attitude toward his father for much of the movie and I never quite understood why.  I like Maria Bello as an actress but for some reason she didn’t do anything for me here.  She did have a cute little scene during a book reading where she’s asked if the character in the book is anything like her.  Her answer kinda reminded me of George Lazenby’s classic: “This never happened to the other fellow” line from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

Michelle Yeoh walks away with the acting honors in this one.  Her character has a fascinating back story and the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie relates that in such a way that you almost wish the entire movie would continue that story.  She’s never anything less than convincing and of course any time you get to see two such masters such as her and Jet Li fight on screen that’s a definite bonus.  Don’t look for a lot martial arts from Jet Li in this one.   He does have some nice fight scenes but nothing spectacular.  And I’m always delighted to see Russell Wong in anything as I was a major fan of ‘Vanishing Son’ and he has a small but pivotal role in this movie.

 

So should you see THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR?  I would say yes.  It’s a totally undemanding movie and asks nothing more than you sit back, relax and have fun.  It’s got hidden tombs with lethal death traps, undead armies, Abominable Snowmen, Shangri-La, plenty of chases, fights and last minutes escapes from fates worse than death.  And it’s done with style, good humor, top notch stunts and special effects.  It’s one of the most enjoyable Saturday Afternoon Movies I’ve seen in quite a while.

112 minutes

Rated PG-13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Game Change

2012

HBO Films

Directed by Jay Roach

Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goeztman

Screenplay by Danny Strong

Based on “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Anytime and every time I watch a movie that is based on incidents that actually happened or that starts off with the words; ‘This Is A True Story’ I immediately start thinking of bovine excrement.  Because for me, unless somebody was right there with a camera at the moment that it happened, you’re not accurately documenting events as they actually happened.  And even then, documentaries can be edited to reflect the attitudes, prejudices and politics of the filmmaker (I’m looking at you, Michael Moore) But even that’s all right with me.  We’re human beings and I don’t think that any of us can be truly and completely objective about anything that we passionately care about.  And that includes politics.  A subject that in the past decade has polarized this country in a way none of us have ever been seen before and probably never dreamed could happen.

My point being that I can’t take movies based on true events  entirely seriously.  They’re made long after the fact when people have had time to analyze, scrutinize, discuss and dissect what happened and why.  Factor in that everything everybody remembers or doesn’t remember is flavored by their emotional, mental and even physical condition before and after adds up to too much of a gap for me to accept everything presented in a movie based on true events in good faith.  But that was before we entered the age of YouTube, CNN, TMZ and two dozen 24-hour news channels.  This is pointed out by McCain Campaign Chairman Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) to Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) early on in GAME CHANGE and he’s right on point.  The 2008 Presidential Election was without a doubt the most compelling and important election in American history as it was the election that saw an African-American man elected President of The United States.   It was played out in public in a way that elections never had been before thanks to the communication and social media that now dominates and in so many ways infects our society.

And it also gave us Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska who was picked by Senator John McCain’s staff to be his running mate.  Both are still with us and if GAME CHANGE teaches us anything is that even if Sarah Palin didn’t become Vice President of The United States, she still won.  Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) is losing the race and he knows it.  In desperation he calls up genius political strategist Steve Schmidt and begs him to come on board his team and save his campaign.  Schmidt’s plan is to find a running mate who can compete with the rock star popularity and megawatt charisma of Barack Obama.  Campaign Manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) thinks he’s got just the thing: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who appears to have all the qualities they need and more.

She’s a married mother of five, everybody loves her, she’s accessible, she’s extraordinarily popular and it certainly doesn’t hurt that even after having five kids she’s gorgeous and looks wonderful on camera.  The problem is that she is woefully unprepared for the job.   She’s devastating in public appearances where she demonstrates a rock star personality equal to Barack Obama’s.  She’s spectacular when giving a speech.  But in horrendous one-on-one interviews with the press it’s as obvious as a slap upside the head that she doesn’t know a thing about domestic and foreign policy.  She’s ignorant of basic government practices and information that fifth graders know.  She can’t even name a single newspaper even though she claims to read “a lot of them every day” She makes statements that are blatantly untrue. And it soon becomes clear to Schmidt, Davis, McCain speechwriter Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) and Senior Advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) that they’ve been given the mother of sow’s ears and they have absolutely no idea of how to turn it into a silk purse.

I wish that HBO had went ahead and made a whole mini-series based on the book as it deals with a whole lot more than just the McCain/Palin campaign which actually is only one section of the book.  But that’s a small quibble.  Taken purely as drama, GAME CHANGE is worth seeing just for the really strong cast that sells the story.  Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Jamey Sheridan, Peter MacNicol, Sarah Paulson and Ron Livingston are all great here.  And as Sarah Palin, Julianne Moore looks and sounds so much like her that it’s downright scary.  And while it would be easy for the movie to give us the Tina Fey version of Sarah Palin, the movie is remarkably fair in its depiction of her.  We see the opportunistic Sarah Palin who suddenly found herself thrust onto the world stage and promptly milked it for all it was worth.   But we also see the frightened and very much out of her league Sarah Palin who starts out as a goldfish among sharks but quickly learns how to be a barracuda.  I also liked how the movie showed the many times when John McCain was urged by his staff to run a dirty, mud-slinging campaign and refused.  As played by Ed Harris he comes across as a man of dignity and honor.

It wouldn’t take much for GAME CHANGE to have been pushed into a full-blown political satire as it comes awful close at times.  And through the use of today’s technology which enables the actors to be flawlessly inserted by digital black magic into archival footage, the line between fact and fiction is erased far too well, if you ask me.  Well worth your time to watch if you have HBO.  And if you don’t, be sure to look for it on DVD or Netflix.

120 minutes.  

There’s no rating for GAME CHANGE.  While there is no sex or violence in the movie, be advised that the f-bomb is dropped numerous times.

John Carter

Walt Disney Pictures

2012

Directed by Andrew Stanton

Produced by Jim Morris and Colin Wilson

Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon

Based on “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It was while waiting in the theater lobby for my wife after we had just seen JOHN CARTER that I heard a snatch of conversation that most likely was duplicated in one way or another in movie theater lobbies all across the country.  It went something like this; “It would have been a better movie if it didn’t try to rip off so many other movies.”

If I was not the sweet, gentle soul you all know and love I would have put that worthy in a serious headlock and informed him that the book the movie JOHN CARTER is based on, “A Princess of Mars” was written back in 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs who just about created the sub-genre of science fiction which could well be termed “Sword and Planet.”  With his series of novels set on the Red Planet, Mr. Burroughs also created a template for heroic adventure fiction that has has been homaged, borrowed, copied and downright stolen from then until now.  John Carter is the great-great grandfather of dozens, if not hundreds of heroes in comic books, novels, movies and television.  Not to mention the influence the books has had on writers, artists and scientists.  Most American astronauts will claim “A Princess of Mars” along with “Star Trek” as the major influence in them wanting to be an astronaut.  The importance of Edgar Rice Burroughs, his creation of John Carter and his vision of Mars simply cannot be overstated.

But that’s enough of the history lesson.  You’re here to find out if I think JOHN CARTER is worth your time and money.  Okay, for a change I won’t make you read the whole review to find out.  Yes.  JOHN CARTER is most definitely worth your time and your money.  Not having read the book in quite some time I’m not going to swear to the faithfulness of the adaptation but most of the major scenes rang true to me and they’re what I wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Confederate Army soldier who goes west to prospect for gold after The Civil War and finds a whole cave full of the stuff.  He also finds trouble from a Union Captain (Bryan Cranston) and some bloodthirsty Apaches.  This leads to Carter being trapped in the cave and transported to Barsoom, which is what the inhabitants of that planet call Mars.

The bewildered Carter is captured by Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe) the Jeddak (king) of the Tharks, the fierce Green Warriors of Barsoom.  Standing some seven feet tall with tusks, and a double torso with four arms, they are the first clue to the bewildered Earthman that he isn’t in Virginia anymore.  But it’s not as if Carter is entirely helpless.  Due to the lesser gravity of Barsoom and his denser bone/muscular structure he has the strength of a hundred men and is able to leap incredible distances.

Meanwhile, over in Helium which is home to the human looking Red Martians, they are realizing that they cannot win their long war with their hereditary enemies, the Zodanga.  Arraignments are made to marry the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to Zodanga’s ruler, Sab Than (Dominic West).

However, Dejah Thoris doesn’t think much of this at all and runs away, an act which leads her to being captured by the Tharks and meeting John Carter.  Once she sees his extraordinary abilities, combined with his exceptional swordsmanship, she sees a way out of her marriage and a way for Helium to win the war.  However, unknown to all, there is a third faction at work in this conflict.  The Holy Therns, led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) have been secretly manipulating conflict between the various tribes and races of Barsoom for thousands of years for their own hidden purposes.  And they’re not about to let a wild card like John Carter interfere in the plans they have for Barsoom.  Or Earth…

The sheer joy of seeing a major motion picture based on anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs probably prevents me from seeing any flaws in the movie.  Taylor Kitsch wouldn’t have been my first choice for John Carter but after seeing him I don’t know who else could have played the role so well.  He commits himself fully to the story and the character and there was never a moment he wasn’t convincing.

As Dejah Thoris, Lynn Collins has a lot to live up to as Burroughs described her in the books as being so impossibly beautiful that any real woman would have a hard time fulfilling that description but she does the job admirably.  And her role in the story is fleshed out considerably by having her be a scientist/swordswoman  as well and not just a princess to be rescued.

Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkus and Thomas Haden Church as Tal Hajus, a rival Thark warrior do a superb job of giving the giant green warriors personality but Dominic West’s character could have been a better villain.  He’s little more than the errand boy for the Holy Tharns but West is such a good actor, I’m willing to let it go.

And maybe it’s just my thing, but when a movie costs as much as JOHN CARTER, I appreciate seeing it up on the screen and I certainly did.  This is a big-budget movie that actually does look like a big-budget movie with some really astonishing sets and eye-popping locations.  This is how a larger than life movie with larger than life characters is supposed to look.  Not like a TV movie on steroids.

Bottom line: I liked JOHN CARTER a lot.  It’s a movie made by talented folks who respect the source material and delivered what I was looking for and that’s more than enough for me.  Enjoy.

132 minutes

Rated PG-13

 

Buck And The Preacher

Columbia Pictures

1972

Directed by Sidney Poitier

Produced by Joel Glickman and Harry Belafonte (uncredited)

Screenplay by Ernest Kinoy

Based on a story by Ernest Kinoy and Drake Walker

When I was growing up there were few actors cooler than Sidney Poitier.  Here was a black man who personified everything that I myself wanted to be: smooth, intelligent, proud, articulate, charming, and witty.  I missed the mark on a lot of those aspirations but as a role model I couldn’t ask for better.  He distinguished himself as a major actor way back in the 50’s and 60’s and when his movies such as “To Sir, With Love” “A Raisin In The Sun” “In The Heat Of The Night” and “Lilies Of The Field” were shown on television in my house it was a major event.  My mom and dad plopped me and my sisters down in front of the set right alongside them to watch.  I know it’s kinda difficult for anybody under the age of 30 to understand why an actor such as Sidney Poitier was so important to black people back in the 60’s and 70’s because now we’ve got Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Avery Brooks, Wayne Brady, Don Cheadle, LeVar Burton and two dozen other notable black actors both male and female.  But once upon a time not so long ago, Sidney Poitier was all we had.  He was it.  He not only was at the top of the pyramid, he was the pyramid.

BUCK AND THE PREACHER is notable for a couple of things that lifts it a couple of notches above your average western.  First off, it’s Sidney Poitier’s first directorial effort and it’s a damn good one.  It’s a western that addresses a major problem former slaves had after The Civil War: okay, we’re free but now what do we do with that freedom? And it’s got a wonderful comic performance by Harry Belafonte, previously best known for popularizing Caribbean calypso music in The United States.  Harry Belafonte had done a number of films previously: the classic “Carmen Jones” with the outrageously beautiful Dorothy Dandridge and 1957’s “Island In The Sun” which was considered a daring movie at the time due to the subject matter of interracial relationships.  But all of his previous movies had been dramas.  In BUCK AND THE PREACHER Harry Belafonte demonstrated a real gift for comedy that he would display again in a later film also directed by his good friend Sidney Poitier: 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night”

After The Civil War, wagon trains of former slaves are heading west, the promised forty acres and a mule never having been delivered.  But there’s plenty of unspoiled, unclaimed land far to the west and the former slaves are willing to make the hazardous journey.  Buck (Sidney Poitier) is a former Union soldier/scout who uses the skills he learned in the Army and the valuable alliances he has made with the Indians to take the wagon trains through.  It’s not an easy job.  The wagon trains are hunted down by “labor recruiters” who use any means necessary to turn the former slaves around and drive them back to the southern plantations.  And Buck has a price on his head, himself being relentlessly tracked down by bounty hunters Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) and his sadistic right hand man Floyd (Denny Miller)

It’s during one of his escapes from Deshay’s posse that Buck encounters The Reverend Willis Oakes Rutherford of The High And Low Order of The Holiness Persuasion Church (Harry Belafonte) a smooth talking wandering minister with bad teeth and a six shooter in his Bible.  Buck switches horses with The Preacher which leads to The Preacher almost getting killed by Deshay’s men.  It isn’t long before The Preacher catches up with Buck and he thinks he’s got an easy mark in the prospective settlers.  But a bloody nighttime raid affects The Preacher more than even he would have guessed and before you know it, both men have joined together to become outlaws in order to get back the money stolen from the former slaves and get them to their new home in the west, far from the harsh unhappy life they previously knew.

BUCK AND THE PREACHER doesn’t beat you over the head with a history lesson but the motivations of the characters are different enough from your average western that it gives the material a fresher spin than you might be used to.  The plight of the former slaves is laid out with no punches pulled so there’s a clear understanding of what’s at stake.  And the performances by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte sell the movie.  Poitier’s the grim stoic while Belafonte is the grinning trickster.  They make a great team.  Ruby Dee plays Ruth, Buck’s woman and she has a great scene where she lays it out for Buck as to what she wants out of life and she doesn’t want it in America.

There’s a nice subplot with Buck’s relationship with an Indian chief (Enrique Lucero) and his wife (Julie Robinson) who are sympathetic to the plight of the former slaves but not so sympathetic that they’ll risk the lives of their people.  Cameron Mitchell and Denny Miller (a former Tarzan and for years was ‘The Gorton Fisherman’) make a great pair of bad guys.  Cameron Mitchell has a nice little scene where he explains to a sheriff how slaves are a way of life in the south and without them, that life will soon be nonexistent.

So should you see BUCK AND THE PREACHER?  I think you should.  It’s got a story that showcases a little known period in The Old West so there’s something extra for you.  But it’s also got some great shootouts including the final one where Buck and The Preacher make a last stand against a dozen opponents.  The performances are solid and Harry Belafonte is obviously having a great time with his character.  It’s got Sidney Poitier.  And it’s a western.  What more do you need?

Rated: PG

102 minutes

True Legend

2010

Shanghai Film Group

Focus Features

Directed by Yuen Woo-ping

Produced by Bill Kong

Written by To Chi-long

If you’ve been hanging out here with me or over at Better In The Dark then you’ve probably heard me going on and on about how much I miss Manhattan’s 42end Street of the 70’s and 80’s.  I spent a lot of time and money seeing movies on that old street, lined on both sides with grindhouses.  If you had even as little as ten bucks in your kick you could spend the whole day going from one theater to the other watching double and even triple features.

One of these theaters was famous for showing nothing but a triple feature of Kung Fu/Martial Arts movies.  That’s right.  During the entire decade of the 80’s you could go see three Kick ‘Em Ups for three lousy dollars at this one theater.  I don’t believe it ever lost money as I recall it always being damn near packed.  A lot of those movies were horribly dubbed, poorly shot and looked as if they’d been made in somebody’s backyard but damn if they weren’t fun.  Sure, we still have Kung Fu/Martial Arts movies being made today but oftentimes to me they come off looking too slick, too polished, too expensive and too well made for me to fully enjoy them.  “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Jet Li’s “Hero” are good examples of what I’m talking about.  Oh, I liked them both a lot but they’re both too art-house and much too self-important for my taste

I guess that’s why I liked TRUE LEGEND so much.  Even though it is extremely well made, professionally polished, slick and a lot of money obviously spent on it, it was made in the true spirit of those Kung Fu epics of the 70’s and 80’s.  There’s just enough story to support us from one scene of spectacular asskicking to the next and it’s a wild story that goes from one twist to another with a gleeful abandon in a way that satisfied a long-time Kung Fu movie fan like me.

 

The movie opens with the great warrior General Su Can (Vincent Zhao) rescuing his prince from a forbidden mountain top fortress.  Any movie that opens with an insanely over-the-top battle that most movies would have ended with catches my attention right away.  In gratitude, the prince wants to give Su a governorship but Su turns it down.  Su persuades the prince to give the governorship to his step-brother Yuan (Andy On).  Su wants to go back home to be with his wife Ying (Zhou Xun) who is Yuan’s sister and open up his own martial arts school.

We jump five years ahead and now Su is a renowned Wu Shu master, raising a son, Feng with his wife and preparing to welcome Yuan home.  It’s a bloody homecoming indeed.  Yuan has hated Su for years because Su’s father killed Yuan’s biological father.  Su’s dad raised the boy and his sister as his own children but Yuan’s the kinda guy who holds grudges for a looooong time.  To ensure his revenge, Yuan has learned a forbidden evil martial arts technique called The Five Venom Fists and has had some really wicked, demonic looking armor grafted onto his arms, legs and torso.

Yuan’s kills Su’s dad, Su’s entire household of retainers, staff and family.  And that’s just before lunch.  Before he’s through he’s beaten the piss outta Su and thrown him down a waterfall.  Ying follows her husband and Yuan thinks they’re both dead.

Not so.  They’re found by a herbalist physician,  Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh) who nurses them back to health.  Su is obsessed with once again fighting Yuan and getting revenge.  But his confidence is shattered.  He regains it when he encounters The Old Sage (The Great, Great Man Gordon Liu) and The God of Wu Shu (Jay Chou) and begs to be their disciple.  The Old Sage tells him that once he defeats The God of Wu Shu he can be their disciple.

Now that’s all the set-up I’m going to give you and actually it’s all you really need as from here on out the movie goes in a couple of directions that you really need to be ignorant on if you want to truly enjoy it.

The acting in this one is nothing to rave about but let’s be honest here; you don’t watch a Kung Fu/Martial Arts movie for Academy Award winning performances.  But it’s always good to see Gordon Liu in a Kung Fu movie where he belongs and Jay Chou reminds me here of why he was the only thing good about the recent “Green Hornet” movie.  Don’t look for Michelle Yeoh to bust any moves as her role is little more than an extended cameo.  As is David Carradine who appears in the last twenty minutes of the movie as the ruthless manager of a cadre of bloodthirsty fighters.   Su takes them on in a really outstanding fight scene where he demonstrates the Drunken Fist, battling his opponents on a platform over a pit of hungry tigers.

So should you see TRUE LEGEND?  If you like Kung Fu movies I recommend it highly.  I’ve read some reviews that claim the fight choreography is unmemorable and I have to wonder what movie those reviewers saw because I found the fight scenes in TRUE LEGEND exhilarating and exciting.  The only odd thing about the movie is that it goes on for another twenty minutes for the battle against Carradine’s fighters when there really is no need as the movie’s story has ended but hey, I’m not gonna argue against twenty more minutes of Kung Fu mayhem, especially when it’s this much fun.  TRUE LEGEND is no masterpiece of the genre but it’s a damn good movie and that’s all it has to be for me.  Highly recommended.

115 minutes

Rated