Day: March 1, 2011

Spectre

1977

20th Century Fox

Directed by Clive Donner
Produced by Gene Roddenberry, Gordon Scott and Danny Steinmann
Written by Samuel A. Peeples and Gene Roddenberry
Based on a story by Gene Roddenberry

It’s safe to say that Gene Roddenberry needs no introduction. In this Internet day and age is it possible there are those who do not know the name of the man who created what is unarguably one of the best-known and most profitable entertainment franchises of the 20th Century? We’re talking “Star Trek” of course which has lasted now for 45 years, innumerable paperback and hardcover novels, enough comic books to wallpaper a Borg Cube inside and out, eleven theatrical movies, five live television series and one animated. But all that came much later after “Star Trek” lived on in reruns and became first a cult then a mainstream classic. During the 70’s, Roddenberry worked on a number of pilots that never caught on that appeared as Made-For-TV Movies.

There was “Planet Earth” Roddenberry’s riff on Buck Rogers about a 20th Century scientist frozen in suspended animation then thawed out in the 22end Century. Roddenberry liked that idea so much he actually remade “Planet Earth” not once but twice. Roddenberry must have really liked the name Dylan Hunt because it was the hero’s name in all three versions and eventually wound up as the name of the main character in “Andromeda”. In whatever version, it didn’t click with anybody so he presented “The Questor Tapes” about an android in the modern world learning to be human. That also went nowhere although Roddenberry returned to that theme with his character of Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and that brings us to the movie we’re talking about now, SPECTRE.

SPECTRE is extremely different from Roddenberry’s other work for a couple of major reasons: One, all of Roddenberry’s other pilots were firmly in science fiction and two, the main characters in the other pilots were square jawed, true-blue heroes with stalwart hearts. SPECTRE is a supernatural thriller whose heroes are deeply flawed men crippled both emotionally and physically but together their respective and diverse skills make them a formidable team.

William Sebastian (Robert Culp) is one of the world’s best criminologists.  If you ask him he’ll tell you he’s is the best.  He summons his old partner Dr. Hamilton (Gig Young) to his side to help him on his latest case. Sebastian has been contacted by Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell).  A member of the immensely wealthy and powerful Cyon family. Anita claims that her older brother Sir Geoffrey Cyon (James Villiers) is possessed by a demon and she wants Sebastian to prove the possession is genuine and destroy the demon.

Why does she call in a criminologist and not an exorcist? It’s explained that William Sebastian, because of his incredible deductive abilities and off-the-chart I.Q. has left the field of conventional criminology out of boredom and now uses those methods to solve mysteries dealing with the supernatural. Dr. Hamilton (we never do find out his first name…Sebastian generally just calls him ‘Ham’) was his partner for many years until they had a falling out but now Sebastian needs Hamilton to keep him alive. Sebastian’s heart is damaged due to witchcraft and the only reason he’s alive is thanks to the spells his secretary/assistant/personal witch Lilith (Majel Barrett) casts to ward off the spells. But her spells can only do so much and Sebastian needs a doctor he trusts  who can deal with his abrasive personality and constantly monitor his condition.

Upon arriving in London where the Cyon family lives, Sebastian and Hamilton meet up with Mitri Cyon (John Hurt) the baby of the family held firmly under the domination of his brother Sir Geoffrey who lives an openly hedonistic lifestyle that would make Hugh Hefner blush. There are attempts on the lives of the various members of the Cyon family by demonic forces and Sebastian deduces that it may not be Sir Geoffrey who is possessed. There’s more than enough evidence that either Mitri or Anita could be under the power of the demon Asmodeus. Sebastian and Hamilton have more than enough on their hands not only trying to uncover who is truly possessed but avoiding getting killed themselves.

I’ll tell you right from the start that SPECTRE isn’t going to scare you at all. It wouldn’t scare any of today’s five-year olds who have been raised on CGI and buckets of gore. But it is a tremendous amount of fun to watch mainly for the performances of the two leading men. Robert Culp and Gig Young play the story absolutely straight, as a modern day Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigating the supernatural and it works damn well. This movie has a wonderfully intense performance by Robert Culp and Gig Young is right there backing him up all the way. Ten minutes into the movie you’re totally convinced that these are two old friends who have been through a lot together.

It’s also interesting in that the two main characters aren’t all that heroic. William Sebastian is a towering egomaniac secure in his intellectual arrogance but the man is emotionally dead as a brick. Dr. Hamilton is an alcoholic womanizer and doesn’t give a damn who knows it. Apart they’ve lost their direction in life but together they compliment each other and make one whole person. It’s interesting to watch these two flawed characters as they piece together not only the mystery of Cyon House but their own troubled souls as well. But it’s not all psychological insights…there’s a couple of murders to solve, with the victims being torn apart by demonic claws and there’s a Druid temple under a Stonehenge-like formation of rocks where forbidden orgies and sacrifices are held in the light of flaming pits. And for those of you who need your eye candy, the movie has plenty of beautiful, busty women walking around in those clingy, lacy gowns that women in British horror movies always seem to be wearing.

John Hurt is also very good here and I was amazed to see that even back in 1977 he looked middle-aged. The rest of the British supporting cast is equally capable. Out of all the busted pilots Roddenberry made, I like SPECTRE the best and I’m really surprised that no one ever thought to try and turn this into a series, especially after Roddenberry’s death when apparently his wife (Majel Barrett) was giving TV producers every random idea Roddenberry ever wrote to turn into a series. With today’s CGI and the flawed nature of the lead characters, SPECTRE could be a terrific series. Of course, it would be hard to find actors to match the excellence of Robert Culp and Gig Young. And maybe it shouldn’t even be tried. SPECTRE as it is stands as a wonderful entertainment from Gene Roddenberry and shows he knew his way around a Druid temple as well as he did the bridge of a starship.

98 min.

The Spirit

2008

Lionsgate Entertainment

Directed and Written for the screen by Frank Miller

Produced by Michael Uslan

I’d have probably been able to swallow this version THE SPIRIT a lot more if Frank Miller hadn’t come out with interviews where he claimed that Will Eisner himself would have approved of this movie.  Y’know, if you’re going to do your own version of a classic character like The Spirit then say so.  But this incarnation of The Spirit is so far from Will Eisner’s character that it qualifies as an original character in its own right.  Here’s what I thought of it in a nutshell:

GOOD:  I actually found myself liking Gabriel Macht a lot in his role as Denny Colt/The Spirit.  I really liked the physicality he brought to the role as he throws himself into the fight scenes with a sort of the-hell-with-it abandon.  And he’s just fun to watch.  And I got the feeling just from his performance that he actually read some of the original Will Eisner Spirit strips.  He’s an okay actor that got caught between a bad script and and an even worst director.

BAD: Scarlett Johansson.  Much as I love The Scarlett (and I have since “Ghost World”) her role as Silken Floss in this one was thankless.

GOOD: The digital photography/sets/lighting.  Say what you want about Frank Miller but he’s proven he’s expert at using this technology in motion pictures and despite all else, THE SPIRIT looks damn good.

BAD:  The unnecessary vulgarity and over-the-top violence was most certainly not needed in this movie.  As most of you who have read my reviews in the past know; I don’t condemn a movie for language and violence.  If the movie warrants it.  THE SPIRIT doesn’t.  I personally found the first fight between The Octopus and The Spirit in extremely poor taste as its ten minutes of them literally wallowing in a mud pit.  And then I saw The Octopus cram a toilet seat on The Spirit’s head and holler: “Hey, toilets are funny!”  Maybe if you’re ten years old, sure.  But when I saw that toilet bowl being crammed on The Spirit’s head I knew what Frank Miller really meant for them to be crawling around in.

GOOD: Eva Mendes.  Any movie that gives me a gratuitous nude butt shot of Eva Mendes is okay in my book.

BAD: The laughable voiceovers we get from time to time.  “The City….she is my mother….she provides whatever I need…” Frank, you didn’t invent that style despite what you fans tell you and you can’t do it well.  So stop it, awreddy.

GOOD: Samuel L. Jackson.  Now hold on, hold on…Sam did exactly what he was hired to do.  Sam was hired to act absolutely Off-The-Wall and that’s what he did here.  And let’s be honest here…Sam Jackson’s performances usually start just this side of Off-The-Wall and go off from there.  He did a great job of playing a villain more at home on an episode of the 1960’s “Batman” TV show right along with The Scarlett and Louis Lombardi as sidekick and henchmen, respectively.

BAD: Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris.  What was up with her?

GOOD:  The backstory between the young Denny Colt (Johnny Simmons) and Sand Saref (Seychelle Gabriel)

BAD: Just about every scene between The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) Dr. Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) and Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria)

And what I think is totally unforgivable: during the closing credits we don’t even get to see Will Eisner’s artwork…instead we’ve shoved Frank Miller storyboards for the movie in our face.  And there is no mention of where we as viewers can purchase Will Eisner’s SPIRIT Kitchen Sink collections.

Let’s get down to where the rubber meets the road, okay?  THE SPIRIT has nothing to do with Will Eisner and everything to do with Frank Miller.  If you worship at Frank Miller’s alter and think he created comics and was the first to introduce film techniques and film noir into comics then you’re going to orgasm over this movie.  If you know and respect your comic history like the rest of us then you can look upon THE SPIRIT as a film curiosity and go on to other more worthy films.

103 minutes

Rated R: Definitely not a kid’s movie due to language, some really brutal violence and a brief rear nude shot of Eva Mendes.

Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea

1961

20th Century Fox

Directed and Produced by Irwin Allen

Written by Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett

 

Not too long ago I was in a discussion with some friends who asked me if I had a chance to remake any movie with today’s special effects, which one would I do.  My answer with no hesitation was VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.

Don’t ask me why this movie holds such a place in my movie going heart but every single time it’s shown on Turner Classic Movies, I stop what I’m doing and watch it.  What’s even stranger is that I really didn’t care for the TV show that was based on the movie and rarely watched it but the movie…I guess it’s because I first watched it when I was a kid and I can still get in touch with that 12 year old who saw the movie for the first time and who sat there totally hypnotized by the story, characters and action.

After we get past the theme song sung by then teenage idol Frankie Avalon (the 60’s version of Clay Aiken) we see our first view of the magnificent futuristic supersub Seaview as it leaps out of the water like a dolphin.  Next to Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, The Seaview is probably the most famous fictional submarine you know.  It’s sleek as a rocket with a unique transparent nose that is part of the observation deck where you can see the marvels of undersea life.  The Seaview is the brainchild of Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) a brilliant, eccentric and arrogant (is there really any other kind in the movies?) scientist who is the founder of The Nelson Institute of Oceanographic Research and he’s taken The Seaview on a test run in the Arctic.  Among those aboard The Seaview is the sub’s captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) The Admiral’s personal assistant Lt. Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden), Nelson’s longtime friend Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) Captain Crane’s right hand man Lt. Danny Romano (Frankie Avalon) as well as Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine) who is observing the effects of long term undersea stress on the crew.  Nelson’s sub has been considered a folly but the Arctic tests have proven the sub’s capabilities.: It’s not only the fastest sub ever built but it can dive deeper than any other sub.  It carries more destructive capabilities than all the explosive power used during World War II and it has enough laboratories on board to qualify as a mobile research facility.

Nelson is deliriously happy with the results of the tests and is relishing in his sub having proven its worth.  But then, during some underwater tests, icebergs batter The Seaview and the sub surfaces to find the entire sky is on fire. In a spookily surrealistic scene, Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane see massive icebergs smoking due to their melting from the intensive heat.  Nelson contacts Washington and finds out that the Van Allen Belt of radiation surrounding the earth has been ignited by a rogue comet and the temperature of the Earth is rising.   He’s ordered to The United Nations where the world’s leading scientists are meeting to try and find a solution.  The Seaview makes it from the Arctic to New York in two days (told you it was a fast sub) and Nelson presents his solution:  he thinks that if The Seaview can fire a nuclear missile from The Marianas Trench at just the right angle at just the right time on just the right day, the nuclear explosion will blow the Van Allen Belt out into space and kill the fire.  Nelson is violently opposed as the other scientists think the fire will burn itself out once it reaches a certain temperature.  The problem with this plan is that if Nelson doesn’t get to fire his missile and if his colleagues are wrong, there will no chance for another try and the temperature will keep rising and burn the Earth to a cinder.

Nelson and his crew have to fight their way out of The United Nations and back to The Seaview where Nelson orders Crane to head for The Marianas Trench.   His intention is to get in touch with The President of The United States to get authorization.  The radiation thrown off by the Van Allen belt makes this impossible and so Nelson decides to go ahead with his plan.  The problem is this: The Seaview has been declared rogue and every submarine in the world has orders to blow it out of the water.  So the intrepid crew of The Seaview not only have to make their deadline but they have to do it while dodging enemy submarines trying to stop them, a secret saboteur onboard, a giant squid, a lethal minefield and Nelson’s own arrogant stubbornness which leads his crew to near mutiny.  And what if Nelson is wrong?  Will his plan doom the Earth to certain destruction?

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA is plain good old-fashioned non-stop pulp adventure from start to finish.  There’s an amazing amount of good characterization provided by the actors, especially Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden and Joan Fontaine. The actors play it absolutely straight and even though the science in the movie is totally goofy, they sell it.   Michael Ansara is also aboard the sub as a man who The Seaview picks up on the Arctic ice and who believes that The Seaview should be stopped in it’s mission as he believes it’s God’s will that if the world should come to an end, Nelson shouldn’t prevent it.  They have a really good scene where Pigeon argues with Ansara that if God believes that that world should come to an end then why did God give man the intelligence and capabilities to try and prevent that end?  It’s a really tense scene that lifts the movie out of what could have been a cheesy standard sci-fi underwater adventure and gives it a little thought and philosophical substance.

The movie also has great suspense as even Lee Crane begins to doubt Admiral Nelson, who he looks on as a father and he’s torn between his love and respect for the Admiral and his concern for his men.  And to make things even worse there are signs that even the iron-willed Admiral Nelson might be cracking under the strain of trying to save the world.  And who is sabotaging The Seaview?  Is it Dr. Hiller who thinks that Nelson is suffering from stress?  Or is it the religious fanatic Alvarez (Michael Ansara)?  Or could it just be one of the crew who has begun to doubt Nelson?

The special effects are what you would expect from the 1960’s but they’re awfully effective, especially the attack by the giant squid but the truly terrifying scene where The Seaview has to navigate a mine field gets my vote as the real nail biter.  And the last fifteen minutes of the movie where Alvarez holds the control room of The Seaview hostage with a bomb and time is running out to fire the missile is just as good.

So should you see VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA?  Hell, yes.  Even though it was made back in the 60’s I really don’t think it’s dated as all in terms of story and acting.  It’s a terrifically entertaining Saturday Afternoon movie that wants nothing more than for you to sit back and be thrilled by the adventure on the screen.  It’s got action, suspense, one of the coolest submarines ever put on film and terrific performances by an old school cast that knows they’re making a B-movie and they’re gonna make a damn good one.  See it and I dare you to tell me VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA doesn’t deserve a “King Kong”style big-budget remake.

105 minutes

G-Force

 

2009

Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Hoyt Yeatman

Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer

Screenplay by Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley

Based on a story by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

 

When it comes to reviewing a movie like G-FORCE I believe that an adult reviewer is better off watching it with the age appropriate child and once the movie is over, asking them what they thought of it and would he or she recommend it to other kids their age.  Let’s face it, most of us are now too jaded or think we’re too sophisticated to appreciate what a movie like G-FORCE is supposed to be or what it’s designed to do.  It’s like when old fogies rag on Justin Bieber and say they don’t understand why he’s so popular.  Well, that’s because you’re not supposed to understand.  Unless you’re a 14 year old girl, you’ll never understand.  It’s kinda the same way with G-FORCE.  You have to be of a certain age and sensibility to appreciate a line like; “Poop in his hand!”

G-FORCE is the code name for an elite team of special FBI agents that are animals.  Their handler/trainer Ben (Zach Galifianakis) tells them they’ve been genetically enhanced which accounts for their exceptional intelligence and their ability to communicate with humans.  With the aid of customized high-tech gadgets and computers guinea pigs Darwin (Sam Rockwell) Juarez (Penelope Cruz) Blaster (Tracy Morgan) star-nosed mole Speckles (Nicholas Cage) and housefly Mooch (Dee Bradley Baker) are dedicated to protecting the country and the world.

That’s if they can pass their budgetary review which is in the hands of Ben’s supervisor Kip Killian (Will Arnett) who is…shall we say highly dubious of the effectiveness of guinea pigs as secret agents.  To prove their worth, Ben sends the team into the personal residence of home appliance magnate Leonard Saber (Billy Nighy) who is under investigation.  Thanks to their various specialties in tactics, martial arts, weapons, surveillance and computer hacking, G-Force learns of a massively sinister scheme of Saber’s that is due to go down in 29 hours.  Unfortunately, the evidence the team recovered is corrupted and they have no proof.  Killian orders the project shut down and the animals destroyed.

G-Force has no choice but to escape and go rogue in order to stop Saber’s nefarious plan and save the world.  But can they do it without their gadgets, their trainer Ben and with bumbling new recruit Hurley (Jon Favreau) screwing up the mission at every turn?

I watched this movie with my four-year old nephew Alex (actually I watched it twice because he insisted that I do so) and y’know what, it actually wasn’t as much of a chore to watch as I thought it was going to be.  I enjoyed the voice work of Sam Rockwell and Penelope Cruz, both of who sound like they’re having a blast.  Tracy Morgan’s voice work was actually intrusive as the voice was entirely too recognizable as Tracy Morgan and it’s as if he’s doing his “30 Rock” persona of Tracy Jordan voicing the character.  Much more interesting is the voice work of Jon Favreau and Nicholas Cage who give their characters unique voices totally unlike their own.  The first time I watched it I didn’t know who was doing the voices until the credits at the end of the movie and was totally surprised to read Favreau’s and Cage’s names.  Their characters sound nothing like them, which I thought was a plus.

Another plus?  The human actors, Zach Galifianakis, Will Arnett and Bill Nighy.  If I had seen just their parts in clips without the CGI guinea pigs I’d had thought they were in a straight spy movie because that’s pretty much how they play it.  The comedy is left mostly up to the rodents including Steve Buscemi as a hamster with anger management issues and three dumb mice.  And because this is, after all a Jerry Bruckheimer production we’ve got more than enough explosions and over the top action sequences.  Some of ‘em are actually quite impressive, given that the stunts are being done by CGI guinea pigs.

When the movie was over, I asked Alex what was his favorite part.  He answer; “When they were running away from the bad guys in their ballies.”  The ‘ballies’ is a high speed rapid deployment vehicle that consists of three clear spheres the G-Force agents drive that can either hook up together or operate independently.  They’re fast, computer assisted and naturally come pimped out with a whole bunch of gadgets Q would be proud of.  Alex also thought Hurley was the funniest one in the movie.  Alex’s favorite line in the movie? “Get your face outta my butt!”

I then ask Alex if he thought other kids his age would like it and he nodded enthusiastically, grinning like a maniac.  So don’t take it from me, take it from my co-reviewer Alex Cabbagestalk III.  If you’ve got kids around his age that haven’t seen it yet and you want to Netflix something appropriate for them to watch, give G-FORCE a try.  It’s clean, it’s wholesome, it’s fun and it won’t kill your brain cells if you’re required to watch it as well.  Enjoy.

88 minutes

Rated PG