Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category
Thursday, June 23rd, 2011
Genre: Adventure, Action, Fantasy
Country: United States
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell Moore, Ulrich Thomsen, Stephen Graham, Christopher Lee
Director: Dominic Sena
Run time: 95 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Season Of The Witch looks bad, it sounds bad and it IS bad. It has bad dialogue, awful action sequences, poor pacing and absolutely dead-eyed wooden performances from its stars. (With the exception of Ron Perlman, who is merely playing Ron Perlman from so many other movies – but to no avail.) It misfires as a horror movie, as an adventure movie, as a sword-and-sorcery epic, and even as an unintentional comedy.
The opening of the movie is promising enough – a priest has condemned three women to death for being witches. It’s that time of history – priests and witches and Good vs. Evil and so forth. In this case, it’s the priest who appears to be evil, as two of the three women are clearly not witches and are victims of (as it were) a witch hunt. They are all three hanged, then drowned. Then the priest has to read the magic words from his magic book to make sure they stay dead. Two of them do. The other one, however, escapes and wreaks vengeance.
Interesting enough. But that’s the first four minutes. After that begins the tedium, as Nic Cage and Ron Perlman are introduced as Crusaders, under the Banner Of God, who fight in a montage of battles, each confusing and unnecessary, that culminate in the slaughtering of women and children in a particularly horrific raid on a city. Cage and Perlman confront the religious leader who ordered the massacre, essentially doing a riff on the old cop-movie cliche “I didn’t sign up for THIS!”
Now they are gone, wandering off across the plains, until they reach a village that has a witch. The village (and surrounding area) is consumed by a plague, and this “witch” is responsible. Cage and Perlman are enlisted to help transport the “witch” to a monastery of some kind, the only one in the world with a book powerful enough to destroy the power of the “witch”. And thereby free the region of the plague. A lovely young woman (Claire Foy) gets thrust in a cage and carried to this monastery.
The whole time she’s being moved, she continually plays coy with whether-or-not she’s a witch. But having displayed superhuman strength and flashing eyes in her very first scene, there is little mystery there. Extra characters get added to the transport party, including a convicted swindler who is the only one who “knows the way”. At first it seems this swindler was added to the party for comic relief. But this movie has ZERO sense of humour. So it turns out he was added so he could be killed by wolves a little later. Like one of the ensigns from Star Trek. Same goes for the other, useless knight.
The DVD of Season Of The Witch has an “alternate ending” special feature. The alternate ending is little bit better, but by the end of the movie I didn’t care at all what the “trut” nature of the “witch” was, or what became of the characters, or even whether it made sense. Either way, it was too dark and confusing just to figure out what was going on, and I was just pleased it was over.
Friday, June 17th, 2011
Genre: Drama, Adventure
Country: United States
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Run time: 114 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
The Eagle (also known as The Eagle Of The Ninth), comes out June 21st from Alliance Films. It’s heroic without any real heroism, epic without a really grand scale, and violent with precious little blood. It has a star (Channing Tatum) playing Marcus Aquila who has the look and the physique to play a Roman war hero, but the charisma of a boiled parsnip. It has a sidekick (Jamie Bell) who is an integral part of the story, but does little more than brood and scowl.
The Eagle is the story of a golden eagle standard carried into Britain by the famed Roman Ninth Legion, commanded by Marcus’ father. The eagle standard is a symbol of Roman power and glory and might and some other stuff. For some reason. The Ninth Legion disappeared (true story) somewhere North of Hadrian’s Wall, and so Marcus’ father is now disgraced. It seems that the loss of an entire Roman legion would be the main reason for that disgrace, but it turns out that the disgrace came because he ALSO lost the gold eagle on a stick.
For the first 40 minutes of the movie, Marcus fights some barbarians, kills some bad guys and generally proves his war-hero bonafides. Then he decides to restore his father’s honour by venturing into Britain, alone, to bring back the Eagle. Which will then, apparently, restore his family’s good name. For some reason. He is persuaded that he will need help, so he brings his slave with him.
Marcus’ slave is Esca (Bell), a captured member of a clan that are sworn enemies of the Roman Empire. Marcus saved Esca from certain death (in a scene that has little bearing on the rest of the film, although it seems to think it does), so Esca hs sworn an oath to help Marcus. Simple enough. Now they are going into Esca’s home land, so Marcus will need the help.
From there, it’s a lot of walking. And random encounters with murderous gangs (who never make it clear why they want to kill these two wanderers), former members of the missing Ninth Legion (who aren’t terribly helpful) and finally, as if by divine providence, the very tribe of painted-faced warriors who are in possession of the Eagle. And from there it’s one long chase until the end of the film. (Which is like the long walk leading up to it, only faster.)
A lot of The Eagle is reminiscent of recent, better period piece war movies. There are a lot of flashback scenes in slow motion with wind blowing grass around and hands appearing as
Russell Crowe Channing Tatum remembers his father. There are shots of the vast highlands as William Wallace Marcus and Esca flee on horseback.
A lot of this really works, and the camera work is solid in the slow scenes. But the battle scenes are choppy and confusing, and they refuse to show blood or carnage, even though they make it clear brutal stuff is happening. (Beheadings, young kids having their throats cut.) They won’t even show the death or blood of a wild pig, I guess to maintain their PG-13 rating. Although I think the 14-year-old audience for this one is scant anyway.
Some decent moments are not enough to save The Eagle from wooden lead performances, confusing fights and a poorly paced plot. It’s one to skip.
Friday, June 17th, 2011
Genre: TV series, Drama, Science Fiction, Adventure
Starring: Colette Stevenson, Alan Scarfe, John Bach, C. David Johnson, Stephen Lovatt, Gordon Michael Woolvett, Andy Marshall
Run time: 22 episodes (1 hour each, 1 season)
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Colette Stevenson provides Mysterious Island with its eye candy, but her hotness is seriously offset by the fact that her character on the show, Joanna, spends the whole show with her husband Jack. Jack is played by that guy who was Chuck Tchobanian on Street Legal (C. David Johnson), and there you have maybe the only two stars on the show who are even vaguely recognizable to the average Canadian viewer.
The other actors did some stuff too. Gordon Michael Woolvett was in Andromeda, Stephen Lovatt made a few appearances on Hercules and Xena, and Alan Scarfe guest-starred on a couple of episodes of Star Trek. Andy Marshall was recently in four episodes of Soul, whatever that is, and John Bach was a bit actor in two of the Lord of the Rings movies. Anyone remember who Madril was? Not me.
At any rate, recognizable or not, these are B-grade actors at best, in a C-grade series that makes little sense. I have never read the Jules Verne book (Mysterious Island) upon which this series is based. But having watched many of the 22 episodes on the Complete Series DVD, out June 14th from Alliance Films, I can only assume it’s a dreadful book. Or, which is more likely, the TV series has almost nothing in common with the book.
The series opens with a married couple and their kid, an old army captain and his former slave, and a foreign reporter being captured during the U.S. Civil War. They are scheduled to be executed but escape via hot air balloon. Then the balloon is shot down over the ocean by a creepy loner mad scientist living on a deserted island so he can experiment on the castaways.
And so begins the series. The castaways never get to see Captain Nemo (until the very end), but they quickly realize something is amiss on this island. Something is also, of course, amiss in the what-year-is-it-here test – the U.S. Civil War is in full swing. I know, because I recently watched Ken Burns’ masterful Civil War documentary, that this places the show between the years of 1861-1865. Captain Nemo, the mysterious weirdo on an island, has closed-circuit television cameras set up everywhere, remarkably powerful submarines, and several other gizmos that seem to me to be out of the realm of the technology available in the 1860s.
The biggest problem with the series though, is that 90% of it feels like padding. sure, there’s a tiny bit of plot development from episode to episode, but so little I kept forgetting it was going anywhere. When you have some unseen diabolical madman unleashing earthquakes and landslides toward these people, is there any need to have them get into extra trouble on their own?
For example – a landslide, triggered by an earthquake, triggered by Captain Nemo, traps the Australian reporter under a giant boulder. The captain and the ex-slave run off in one direction to find something helpful, but get poisoned by some gas in the ground and must help each other back, heroically. Then the ex-slave and the young boy run off in another direction to get some other help, and the kid gets his foot caught in rocks in a puddle as the tide is coming in. Which leads to more help and more heroics.
And that ends up being the whole some. One character gets trapped somewhere, somehow, under something. Then the others put their collective minds together in order to help that one character out of the dilemma. And…then…it ends, as Captain Nemo shows himself, explains his diabolical (if a little nonsensical) plan, and then he leaves. The end. Mysterious Island ran only one season, in 1995, and then it was done. Mercifully.
Monday, March 29th, 2010
Genre: Classic, Romance, Adventure
Country: United States
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Gerald Onn, Peter Swanwick, Richard Marner
Director: John Huston
Run time: 105 minutes
DVD distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
Special feature: Embracing Chaos: The Making of The African Queen
The African Queen is one of the most over-rated movies of all time. The American Film Institute comes out with these lists every year, the 100 Greatest American…whatever…of all time. The best movie songs, the best actors and actresses, the best thrillers and romances and so forth. The very first one, more than ten years ago, listed the 100 greatest American movies of all time. The African Queen was 17th. Not to say it’s a bad movie. But the 17th best American movie ever made? Hardly.
The African Queen is a good movie. That’s it. It’s far more historically significant than it is “great”. That’s for a couple of reasons. Back to the AFI for a moment, in their “100 greatest stars” list, they ranked Humphrey Bogart the #1 actor of all time, and Katherine Hepburn the #1 actress of all time. The African Queen was the first, and only, screen pairing of the two, coming fairly late in both their careers.
The African Queen, with surprising box office success, marked the resurrection of Hepburn’s career (she had recently been deemed “box office poison”) and began her extremely successful run of films late in her life. Without this film, and those that followed (through On Golden Pond many many years later) she would not be the icon she is today.
Another historically significant aspect of The African Queen is that it was Bogart’s only Best Actor Oscar win. That being said, he deserved one long before this, for Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and countless other movies. This was more of a “lifetime achievement” Oscar, the way Paul Newman got his for The Color of Money and Sandra Bullock got hers for The Blind Side. Frankly, there were three other Oscar nominees (Montgomery Clift in A Place In The Sun, Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Fredrich March in Death Of A Salesman) who were better in 1951.
Also, the fact that the movie was shot by John Huston in Africa, which was almost unheard of at the time, and some intrigue involving the Hollywood blacklist and some other factors made the making of The African Queen almost as interesting as the movie itself. The story of that journey is told in the one-hour documentary Embracing Chaos, which is featured on the new DVD as well.
The fact that The African Queen is just now coming to DVD is a story in itself. This is the last movie on the AFI’s top 100 list to make it to DVD, and it has been a long wait. I was hoping for a little more bonus material. Embracing Chaos is fascinating, and it adds an awful lot to this DVD edition, but I was hoping for something along the lines of the Centennial Collection, where Paramount has been re-releasing classic films with a ton of special features. The African Queen deserves more special features.
This movie holds up well. It’s just two people on a boat for the bulk of the picture, but the fact that it’s Bogey and Hepburn is terrific. The fact that they’re both middle-aged and don’t exactly still have matinee idol looks is not just interesting, but refreshing. And the sense of adventure is still palpable. I maintain that this is not one of the 100 greatest American movies ever made. But The African Queen is still very good. And the release of this film on DVD, March 23rd from Alliance Films, is still a very big deal.
Thursday, August 13th, 2009
“By the power of Greyskull!”
Language: Russian w/ English subtitles, English dubbing
Starring: Aleksandr Bukharov, Igor Petrenko
Eye candy: Oksana Akinshina, Natalya Varley
Director: Nikolai Lebedev
Run time: 142 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Okay, so I’m not sure that quote actually came from Wolfhound. It may well have come from a He-Man cartoon I once watched as a child. The two blurred together for me during a dream I had during a nap I had toward the middle of the film. The DVD box, out August 18th from Alliance Films, says that Wolfhound is like “Conan The Barbarian meets Lord of the Rings“. Well. Not just the DVD box, but the Hollywood Reporter as well. Which is quoted on the DVD box. This is partially true. Wolfhound is a lot like a really crappy Lord of the Rings meets a slightly worse version of Conan.
If we take the premise voiced in Clerks II that Lord of the Rings is nothing but a lot of walking, then I can see the comparison. There is a lot of walking in Wolfhound. And I can see the comparison to Conan, in that there is a fair amount of flexing and growling and not very much dialogue. Oh, and there’s magic and witches and such. But really, I feel that Wolfhound is a little more like Beowulf meets Outlander. In that it’s pretty darn ridiculous, and it involves Viking types and people yelling the name of the hero a lot.
The hero’s name, you see, is Wolfhound. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s not some kind of mystical title bestowed upon him by some religious icon or god-like figure. It’s just his name. Try it out. Even as a nickname, try it out. Call your oldest kid “Wolfhound” all through dinner tonight. Or dub your best friend “Wolfhound” all night the next time you’re out having beers and watching football. Try it right now. Call someone and refer to them as “Wolfhound”. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Kinda sounds ridiculous every time you use it as a name? Yep.
The name “Wolfhound” is both cutesy and badass, it’s vaguely redundant, and it sounds idiotic every time it is used in the movie. “Save me, Wolfhound!” Uh…haha. I choose to laugh. And I do. I giggled every time I heard the name used. And on some level, I think that is the intent of the movie. More on that in a second. You see, as a very young child, Wolfhound (Aleksandr Bukharov) saw his father and mother murdered in front of his eyes, along with the rest of this village. He saw the sword of one assassin, and the hand tattoo of the other.
Wolfhound, as a small child, was taken as a slave and thrown into “the mines” – who knows what they are mining for? I don’t think it matters. The point is, it’s hard labour with slave drivers and sweating and creepy stone walls. Wolfhound becomes the first and only slave ever to escape the mines, apparently learns how to fight somewhere (a Pai Mei style Kill Bill training montage would have been nice there) and seeks vengeance on those who murdered his family. He encounters a slave girl, a princess, a blind healer, a slave with some book-learnin’, and a big fat forest priestess or something. And some assassins.
As I said, I am willing to give Wolfhound the benefit of the doubt. I am willing to believe that it is over the top on purpose, and that I was meant to laugh most of the time during the film. Just like with Beowulf, I am assuming (and hoping) that this movie had its tongue in its cheek. The moment in Beowulf when he takes off all his clothes to fight the beast, under the pretense that the beast, too, is naked, and that this will even things up, is the moment where the movie jumps the shark and becomes ironically amusing.
That point in Wolfhound comes fairly early, about 20 minutes in, when Wolfhound slices the hand off a vicious masked assailant, only to discover a few minutes later that the dismembered hand has a wolf tattoo on it – it’s the guy who murdered his mother! Now he has his target in his sights, and the movie should likely end quickly. But it goes on for two more hours. There are constant flashbacks, to scenes we have just seen, that hammer home the things that are already obvious to us. When I saw the princess for the first time, I had already seen a few flashbacks that made it clear she was the same woman Wolfhound saved in the woods. But there are more and more flashbacks to ensure that the point is beaten to death. I get it! Move on! But still, I’m laughing…
“He is battling destiny. And destiny is a cunning foe.”
The other characters have funny names too. “Maneater”, and “Golly-Rod” and “Castle Mountain”. There had been some pointless battles, and there had been a lot of walking, and a few more unnecessary characters added to the traveling brigade, when I slipped into nap mode. That’s when “Castle Mountain” was being brought up again and again. Which might explain why I had all those He-Man dreams. But it wasn’t just the names and the silly flashback overkill that made me giggle.
Also funny is Wolfhound’s habit of tying his hair back behind his head when he is about to throw down. Wolfhound has a pony-tail now! Look out…it’s meant to be badass, like Clint Eastwood spitting before he blew everyone away in The Outlaw Josey Wales. “Get ready, little lady. Hell is coming to breakfast.” But really, it’s a guy tying a pony-tail. There is a guy who gets burned in the face by Wolfhound in the very first scene. He shows up, again and again, during the movie. They make sure we know (hammering it home, like everything else) that this guy with the burnt face is the same guy whose face was burnt. And then…nothing. Nothing ever comes of it, there is no reason for the guy even to exist.
Wolfhound is a Russian movie, in the Russian language, and comes with English subtitles. This is a decent option, but to get the full comedic value of the movie, you have to hear people call the hero “Wolfhound”. And the dubbing is pretty darn good, as far as dubbing goes. Also, many people in the movie have thick beards, so you can’t see their mouths moving anyway, and a lot of people do a lot of their talking off the screen. Not that there’s much talking in the film. Most of the dialogue is mystical, fantastic mumbo-jumbo and people yelling “Wolfhound!” which is totally hilarious even the fortieth time.
I mentioned Outlander and Beowulf in this review, because I think they are similar in that all three have tongues in cheeks and a flexing, posturing, testosterone-infused sense of fun. I gave both of those films marginal recommendations, because I wanted to believe that they knew they were ridiculous, and they made me laugh despite massive plot holes and idiotic plot twists and totally unnecessary characters and scenes and battles. I feel the same about Wolfhound. It can be a lot of fun, as long as you don’t, in any way, take it seriously.
Sunday, April 5th, 2009
“Every minute I spend in your company becomes the new greatest minute of my life!”
Bolt is the story of a superhero dog who doesn’t realize that he is in fact the star of a television show. He believes he does, indeed, have a super-bark. he believes that he can melt metal with his eyes and that he has super-strength and so on and so forth. As in many kids movies, he can only bark when people are listening, but with other animals he can converse with an extensive vocabulary, and he can reason as well as a human being. Which really makes it implausible that he might actually believe that he is a super-dog, but then, it’s a kids movie. So who cares, right? When he is with his owner, Penny, he is a regular dog who attacks a squeaky carrot and licks her face. When she is not around, Bolt is as smart as a human being. Just not as perceptive, I suppose.
The makers of the TV show, also named Bolt, of course, see to it that the dog always believes that he is, in fact, a superhero. They contrive scenarios and crazy situations such that the dog never clues in to the fact that he is an actor. The director spews some mumbo-jumbo about how the show is greater because Bolt believes. And that’s good enough. But when an episode ends and Penny (voice of, appropriately, Miley Cyrus) is gone, Bolt (voice of, bizarrely, John Travolta) takes off from the set and sets out to find her. Through a strange series of events, he ends up being shipped to New York. So the whole movie is essentially a road movie as he tries to get back to Hollywood.
The thing that makes this movie charming and fun are the supporting characters. Mittens, a cat, is apprehended by Bolt and taken along against her will. You see, in the TV show, cats are all in league with the villainous green-eyed man. So in order to find this man and rescue Penny, Bolt kidnaps a cat. Which is kind of funny. And the cat is a sour, street-wise angry cat, which makes it funnier. There are some amusing recurring themes, like Bolt’s crazy fear of styrofoam. Because he was packaged up with styrofoam packing peanuts when he was shipped to New York, he believes that styrofoam is some kind of nefarious substance that saps him of his superpowers. It’s a cute twist that keeps coming back, and it’s funny.
Also funny is the addition of a bonkers hamster in a ball. Rhino is Bolt’s biggest fan, and continually feeds Bolt’s illusion that he is, in fact, a superhero. The hamster is so crazy that we never really know whether he is aware that Bolt is an actor, or whether he actually believes in his abilities, or what. Rhino gets some of the best lines in the movie – when they are approaching an impenetrable Animal Control center, he suggests that he will sneak up behind one of the guards and “snap his neck”. The fact that although he never actually hurts anyone, he still believes he can, is pretty funny too.
Then the movie plays out like every standard kids’ movie. Bolt searches for Penny, Penny pines over the missing Bolt, the unpleasant and callous agents try to spin Bolt’s disappearance to their advantage, Bolt returns just in time to misunderstand something he sees, he has a falling out with Mittens, but then Mittens follows him, helps him, he saves Penny for real, everything is OK, and the hamster, the cat, the dog and the Miley Cyrus retire to a giant house with a big lawn. There’s nothing really ambitious about Bolt, and it doesn’t have anything new to offer. We’ve all seen the kids movies with the deluded character, the crazy character and the cynical tag-along.
It’s a formula perfected in Toy Story 2, and one that is followed to the letter by Bolt. But there are some very funny moments, the TV show itself is pretty hilariously over-the-top (although the scenes that set up the TV show go on way too long), and the characters are solid. Disney may no longer make ground-breaking films for the kids, but Bolt at least proves that they still know how to make entertaining ones.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
BlacKout is about an event we likely all recall. That giant blackout that turned off the power across Ontario and upstate New York a few years ago. I remember exactly what I did. I got a couple of girls from work to come home with me, we grabbed ice bags from the store in my building, we filled the tub with the ice and the beer that was still in my fridge, and we waited. Our phones were dependant on power, so we didn’t call anyone, we just waited. My roommate came home. Then the girls from downstairs came up. Then the two college guys from across the hall came over. Then other girls we knew just arrived from nowhere. Somehow the word was out, phones be damned, that our place was the central gathering point. People had beer, put it in the tub, and we had a great time out on our balcony and around our house for an entire night. This good time was aided by a small act of violence. When Dave from downstairs came up carrying his guitar, and set it down for a moment, we hid it in the ceiling until the next day. We were pleased to have a small party, but we’d be damned if it would turn into a campfire kumbaya party.
In other parts of the country, things weren’t so orderly. In particular, a neighbourhood in New York City called East Flatbush, where the tension boiled over into violence, looting, and a vey scary night for everyone in the area. BlacKout tells their story, and it is out on DVD this coming Tuesday courtesy of Paramount and BET. Most exciting for me was seeing that Melvin Van Peebles was in the film. Van Peebles (and yes, he is Mario’s father) is a cinematic legend, the man who almost single-handedly created the “blaxploitation” genre in the 70s with his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadaasss Song. He certainly hasn’t done much of note recently, and I’m just glad to see that he’s working. By now, he is playing George, who is in his nineties and is the super of a building in East Flatbush, the building that is central to the movie. The movie deals with several couples, a mother and son, three old ladies and a few other individuals who live in that building, and what they do during the blackout. Believe me, it is much different from what I did.
BlacKout (I don’t know why I’m still putting that big K in there. I still don’t get the big K) plays like a second-rate Spike Lee film. Specifically, a second-rate Do The Right Thing. Very very similar films, in that Do The Right Thing was centered around one day, in that case the hottest summer day of the year, and BlacKout is centered around one day, the day of the…blackout. Also similar in that it follows many people around, and their stories intersect with one another without building to any kind of massive cheesy ending where every story comes together. They just exist on their own, and in relation to one another, and it is quite good. Second-rate Spike Lee is not really a put-down. Few films could match the tempo, the dialogue and the feel of Do The Right Thing. For example, Disturbia was a second-rate Rear Window, but it was still pretty good. Comparisons to Do The Right Thing I think are unavoidable with this film, but if you can watch the whole thing while constantly thinking of Spike Lee’s masterpiece and still enjoy it, the film maker here (in this case Jerry LaMothe) has done something impressive. BlacKout is good. It just isn’t classic.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a long title that explains much of what you need to know about the movie (*********9/10)
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
It was the mother of Jesse James, in real life, who would select the words for his epitaph. “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here”. The new movie, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, feels that Robert Ford’s name IS worthy to appear in their title alongside that of James. That the two men were equally important parts to the same story. It’s a story that has been told many times, in books, music, and of course movies. Jesse James has been played by Tyrone Power, Red Barry, Roy Rogers, Clayton Moore, Audie Murphy, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson and Rob Lowe. Among others. The worst portrayal of James was Colin Farrell’s in American Outlaws – mostly because that movie was so very very terrible. The best may well be Brad Pitt in this film. Whose title I won’t keep typing for fear of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
But Brad Pitt is outdone considerably in this movie by Casey Affleck. Yes, Casey Affleck, the kid brother of Ben, who has never appeared in any significant role in his life and yet all of a sudden finds himself in two of the biggest roles in two of the best movies of the year! And he is good. In both – it isn’t just his brother’s direction that makes him great, he is just legitimately an excellent actor. Robert Ford has been played by John Carradine, whose four sons became actors. Son David was later killed by Uma Thurman. He has also been played by John Ireland, and some guy on an episode of Little House on the Prairie. But the best protrayal is without a doubt Affleck’s in this movie, and he richly deserved his Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. Although Brad Pitt is a Movie Star, and his public persona dwarfs his talent, people forget that he is an outstanding actor. Outdoing him in a movie is a considerable achievement.
Pitt at his very best reminds me a little of Paul Newman, and watching this movie reminded me of Paul Newman’s portrayal of Billy The Kid in The Left-Handed Gun (1958). He’s an outlaw on the edge of sanity, paranoid and almost childish in his outlook. He seems to be the kind of guy who has reached the end of his rope, and almost welcomes his own death. Death is his deliverance, and I think the title of the movie makes it pretty clear it happens, and as such this is not much of a spoiler. Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shephard are all excellent in supporting roles, and James Carville makes a bizarre appearance as the governor. Nick Cave shows up as a saloon singer, and Hugh Ross lends just the right tone to keep the story moving as the narrator.
Jesse James, in his day, was about the most famous person in America, outside the president, because his exploits were followed in the papers. He was a celebrity simply because he was someone that people had heard of, and there were not many of those around at the time. Even at the time, he was considered a hero in the west, because the papers protrayed him as an anti-establishment fighter on the side of good. But of course, he was really just a bandit and a murderer who happened to get good press. Che Guevara he was not. This movie captures the tone perfectly, Robert Ford being an idol-worshipping sycophant to James and his gang at first. He has been a die-hard Jesse James fan since he was a small boy, and now that he comes face to face with the reality of the outlaw, he becomes completely torn between his hero-worship and his desire for self-preservation. And the film has a surprisingly un-dramatic conclusion, given the subject matter contained so succinctly in the title. Like the best westerns of all time (and this is among the top 200 ever made) death is just something that happens as a natural course of living, whether it be because of the elements, sickness, or at the hand of other men.
Westerns have gone through many ups and downs in movie history. John Ford’s Stagecoach, in 1939, was the first movie to suggest that westerns could be real feature films, A-list movies, rather than continuing as it was in B-movie, black-and-white serials and the like. That was the golden age of the western, when John Wayne and John Ford were kings, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart were major stars, and films like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were among some of the best ever made. There was a big resurgence in the western genre during the 70s, when the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood breathed some life back into the genre. Then it died again, until the 90s, when Unforgiven in 1992 became one of the greatest movies of all time, and quite possibly the best western. This resurgence led mostly to B-grade fluff, like Bad Girls and The Quick And The Dead, and nothing of substance. I sincerely hope now that films like 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford mark a more substantial return to significance in the history of the western, and that more movies like this one can be made. But even if not, the fact that this particular movie was made is reason enough to be happy.
Shake Hands With The Devil – not the book, or the documentary, but the Roy Dupuis movie. (*******7/10)
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
I have long said that Roy Dupuis is the French Canadian version of Colm Feore. When you have a big Canadian icon that you want to immortalize on film or TV, you pick one or the other. Anglophone icon? Feore. (Pierre Trudeau, Glenn Gould.) A Francophone icon? Dupuis. (Maurice Richard, Romeo Dallaire.) And so there was no question in my mind when I heard that Shake Hands With The Devil was going to be made into a feature film as to who would play Dallaire. It was Dupuis, or the film would not have been made. By the way, in order to avoid those “do your research” and “get your facts straight” emails, I would like to state right now that I am indeed aware that Pierre Trudeau was a Francophone. But that movie was mostly English.
Dallaire’s book was a sensation in Canada when it came out. A tragic and devastating look at the genocide in Rwanda. It was later made into a documentary film, which helped make people aware of the horror a little more, and now this movie, which might help even a little more. The thing that made me saddest in watching this film was the fact that it came out so many years after the genocide was over. Same for the documentary and the book. Now, it’s not like Dallaire could have written his book while things were going on. But it’s sad to think that so many people pay attention now, and watch other films like Hotel Rwanda, and feel sad and mourn the tragedy and get enraged over things like “why didn’t somebody do something”. And yet, when we see those things on TV, on the news, in the papers, and we are aware it is taking place RIGHT NOW, we don’t do much. As Joaquin Phoenix says in Hotel Rwanda, we go back to our TV dinners and turn on the hockey game when the news is over.
Part of this, I feel, is because of the nature of the media. When genocide is taking place in Darfur, in Africa, way across the sea, it is treated as simply a news story. A two-minute piece on the horrors in Darfur gets as much importance as a two-minute piece on the possibility of the defeat of the budget in the House of Commons. Very often, it gets less. A school shooting is big news, front page on every paper, lead story in every newscast. That is a tragedy that hits close to home. But more people died in thirty seconds during the genocide in Rwanda than have died in all school shootings in North America combined. It doesn’t affect us. It is reported as “here’s what’s going on in a country that isn’t ours”, and is followed up with “a small town in France has outlawed public toilets!” and we forget all about it. Toilets! That’s hilarious! I think it’s safe to say that most of us know (myself included) know more about Columbine and Dawson College and Virginia Tech than we do about Darfur. Really, this isn’t exactly the fault of the media. This is really the way we want to be fed our news, and they are just complying with the wishes of the general population – you wouldn’t get many ratings if you showed machete massacres every night.
And so we get Shake Hands With the Devil, a movie that has been made only when it could be made, many years after the fact. And hopefully, it makes people aware that such things are still going on, or curious enough to find out. (Steven Spielberg has just pulled out of the Olympics in Beijing to protest China, feeling that they haven’t done enough to stop the genocide in Darfur.) And the movie is pretty good, as a movie. Dupuis is steely and tough as Dallaire, a man who carries himself with the utmost dignity and commands respect as a lifelong soldier. His supporting cast is for the most part excellent. Having just finished the book, I recognized most of the characters being protrayed just as I had imagined them. Especially James Gallanders as Major Brent Beardsley, who has a few tough scenes. This is a fascinating story, and that alone makes the movie worth watching.
But there is a little problem with the movie, looking at it solely in the context of a movie. It is a dramatization of real events, but somehow, it doesn’t feel dramatized enough. There are scenes taken directly from the book – a scene where Beardsley is confronted by a mob of machete-weilding Interahmwe, as he tries to get a wounded woman to safety, and he punches the man who stands in his way. In the book, the scene is tense, dramatic and poignant. In the film, it’s tough to tell what you’re seeing. Is that guy standing in his way…or not…or OK it’s over. Another scene where Dallaire and Beardsley are blockaded from a portion of the city and must get out of the car and walk through the barricade, as weapons are cocked and the bad guys say they will shoot. Again, in the book, this scene made me pretty nervous. In the movie, it is treated as a matter of course.
Doc hated Gone Baby Gone because he had read the book first, and he couldn’t reconcile what he saw on the screen with what he had imagined in his head when reading. I had the same problem with Shake Hands With the Devil, seeing scenes that were so familiar to me and yet not feeling their poignancy as much as I had while reading. But at the same time, I’m not sure anyone would understand this movie without having read the book first. There are so many factions and institutions – the RPF, the RGF, the Interahmwe, the president, prime minister, interim government, and countless others. Each with their own politics, their own attitudes, their own enemies and their own clandestine secrets. It is such a complicated picture that the movie can’t hope for a moment to make sense of it all in less than two hours. In the end, this film should be watched, and is certainly good, but if you had to make a choice, read the book.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
As I am now speeding through the Frank Capra movie collection, I just watched It Happened One Night. Another classic, and another wonderful film. But since I watched it, I have been wracking my brain to figure out why I enjoyed it so much. And why it didn’t bother me. Had this film been made today, it would have starred Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, and it would have made me very angry. And it isn’t just that Clark Gable keeps his shirt on and Claudette Colbert is a better actress than Kate Hudson that makes the difference. Sure, Gable and Colbert are hundreds of times better than most modern actors, but there is little sense of realism in this old movie. It’s not like the dialogue is any more realistic than it is today, in fact it is less so. And by all rights, I should hate it, because it was an example of the beginning of the genre that plagues me most today – romantic comedies where the leads hate each other to start with, then end up falling in love and getting together at the end of the film. I hate that garbage!
But then, that’s kind of like hating Minor Threat just because they helped create emo. I just can’t do it. In fact, I loved this movie. I loved the dialogue. It isn’t realism this movie aims for, it’s entertainment, intelligent entertainment. The dialogue is whip-cracking fast, smart, and incredibly engaging. Clark Gable is effortlessly charming and clever, Colbert is innocently sweet and naive, with more to her under the surface. She plays a rich-kid girl who is running away from her father to marry the guy she believes she loves. Of course, she doesn’t really love him, because otherwise the movie would not make sense, and she would not end up riding a train with Clark Gable. He is a reporter who has been fired for drinking on the job, and he sees Colbert as his golden opportunity. A rich girl whose father is scouring the country for her, whose name and picture are in all the papers, and who has a $50,000.00 reward for her discovery. Now Gable has the story of a lifetime, and he means to see it through to the end. That means keeping Colbert hidden until she reaches her husband-to-be, and helping her through by stealing food and lodgings, bribing people, threatening those who mean to expose her and otherwise breaking the laws at every turn.
This romantic comedy is as “light” a comedy as it gets. It’s non-stop, whether it’s action as they run from one place to the next, or dialogue, as when Gable lights into Colbert as a stuck-up rich snobby brat, or humour. One of the funniest recurring bits in the film is the telegrams Gable keeps sending his old newspaper editor, the one who fired him. He keeps telling him that he has the runaway rich girl, that he’s onto the story of the century, and that this editor can’t have it. And he sends these telegrams collect. This film is so quick, so funny, so well-paced and so well acted that it really stands the test of time, despite the romantic comedies that followed it with so much less success.
At the time of the filming, Claudette Colbert really didn’t want to do the project, and when filming wrapped, she was quoted as saying it was going to be the worst movie of her career, and one of her worst performances ever. However, somehow, despite her, Capra was able to get the most out of her that he could. In fact, I would suspect the credit would have to go more to Clark Gable in this instance, since it seems he is drawing the very best out of Colbert in every scene simply by virtue of his magnetism and exuberance for the role. The movie succeeded despite her, and she excels despite herself. In the end, It Happened One Night became the first movie ever to sweep the five major Oscar categories – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Deservedly so in all categories. The only other movies worth while in that year were The Thin Man (still a wonderful classic comedy/mystery) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra, also starring Claudette Colbert in the title role (no longer really remembered). But only one of those films endures to this day, and that is It Happened One Night. Seventy-four years later, it is still magnificent.
P.S. Most film critics and historians will mention It Happened One Night in conjuction with two other, seemingly undrelated movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence Of The Lambs. That is because to this day, they are the only three movies ever to win all five of the major Oscar awards. And in each case, those were the only five awards they picked up. Oh, and in the interests of accuracy, so I don’t get any angry emails, Clark Gable does in fact, at one point in the film, take off his shirt to reveal his bare torso, a very rare thing in movies at the time. All of which did indeed pave the way for Matthew McConaughey. But I still love this movie.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
I just received a DVD called Turok: Son Of Stone from Alliance Films. I watched it with my step-son, who is 13 and has played these “Turok” video games in the past. I was not even aware that the video game existed, but he insisted that it was gory and bloody and that the main character in the video game was a caveman who fought dinosaurs and such. In the video game, you were equipped (he tells me) with circular saw blades that return to you like boomerangs, grenade launchers and heat seeking missiles, machine guns, and so forth. In this new cartoon from Alliance Films, Turok appears to be aboriginal. This is indicated by the teepees in the village, the feathers on the heads of the characters, and the tomahawks they use to kill each other. Which is fine at first. The main problem here is that every single character in the movie – the bad guys, the good guys, the women – all look exactly the same. This led my step-son to call me a racist. Which I thought was a hilariously perceptive remark. But they do! The only distinction one can make between people is men and women. And only then because the men are all gigantic steroid cases and the women look normal. As far as facial features go – no difference.
So, Turok is a warrior for his tribe, who kills some enemies to save the woman he loves. In his blinding fury and bloodlust, he also attacks and almost kills his own brother. He is banished from his tribe, where he lives for twenty years alone, apparently just two miles away, but in a barren wasteland where he kills and eats deer. And works out. Because when he returns, he is massive in a way even Schwarzennegger never could have been in real life. The woman he loved has now married Turok’s brother, who is the chief of the tribe now. They have a son, who is now twenty or so. The rival tribe, the one who was the “enemy” twenty years earlier, attacks this noble group and slaughters them – using guns! Turok’s tribe is stunned, having never seen guns before. What ARE these instruments of death? So with just this woman and her son left alive, Turok returns from exile to avenge his brother. Which leads to more flexing and steroid use. And these battles are definitely bloody. For a cartoon, there is a massive amount of blood, arms severed, heads chopped off. There is even a scene where a giant bird creature bites the head off a horse. But I’ll get to that later.
So far so good. I figure the year is about 1650, and guns are relatively new to this part of the world. They are still the rifle musket type, which appeared many years later, about 1800. But that is a minor detail, and everything else makes sense. Until he pulls out an automatic pistol. Then the dinosaurs and cavemen show up. Now I really have no idea what year it is, and I have no interest in putting a date on the movie. More warriors show up, having clearly also subsisted on a diet, lo these many years, of steroidosaurus. I understand that people in this era, whatever it may be, would be in shape. They have to walk and run a lot, and hunting can’t be easy. But I find it hard to believe they would look like this. There was no HGH and no Nautilus around. And yet, ever since the days of He-Man, this has been the way lazy animators choose to show how tough someone is. The bigger their muscles, the tougher they are. Fine. It is kind of funny. Also funny is the tyrannosaurus-like creature (it IS a T-Rex, only with horns and bug eyes). It attacks all the people, when it is fifty times the size of their horses. This bugs me in movies a lot. Why do these massive creatures chase the three little humans that are central to the story when there are other gigantic dinosaurs and horses around? As I said while watching, if I had to choose between chasing three peas around my plate, and having a steak delivered to me, I think I know where I’m going. Straight to the steak.
Then there is the giant bird (we figure a Moa of some sort) that bites the head off a horse. At least it went for the biggest, tastiest thing first. Then there are tons of familiar dinosaurs – dimetrodon, plesiosaurus, brontosaurus, and others. But they just exist in passing, like part of a nature show. The creatures that actually attack our heroes have never existed. Anyway, it all boils down to more and more preposterous situations, and bloodier and bloodier battles, until finally the bad guy is dead and the good guy rides a Tyrannosaurus with the eyes of a house fly into battle and lives, and the woman is alive and the boy is alive, and everyone lives happily ever after, quickly forgetting the three thousand fellow tribesmen they have lost in a fight over an axe. Oh yeah, this whole evil-guy good-guy battle is over an axe.
At any rate, my step-son assures me that this movie was very much unlike the video game, in that there were no giant saw blades and ridiculous weapons. I think he liked it enough anyway, it was full of blood and fighting and monsters. But I figure why not be true to the original game? If you are going to have guns of all kinds and dinosaurs of all kinds and American natives and also cavemen, how much more implausible would it have been with saw blades and machine guns and grenade launchers? Come on, Turok. Go all out here.
Silk. Movies are not supposed to get this boring. (Alliance Films) Out this coming Tuesday, February 26th. (***3/10)
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
My girlfriend watched the trailers for “Silk” and was very excited to watch it. I thought it might be good too – I like Francois Girard, the director. He’s done some quality films, like The Red Violin and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. (The representative Canadian film, in that it stars Colm Feore as a Canadian icon.) And as Girard is a Canadian director, and he used Canadian people in the production, this film qualifies (yay!) as “Canadian” in the arbitrary terms that make a film eligible for a Genie. And when a film qualifies as “Canadian”, yet has international stars and opens to a wide North American release, it has a leg up in terms of the Genies. There are always five nominations for “best picture”, and if we’re lucky, two of those films will have been recognized outside their own province. This year, Eastern Promises and Away From Her are the two movies that were bigger than “Canada” that got Genie nominations. And Silk was bigger than “Canada”. It stars Keira Knightley, it has a much bigger budget than your standard Canuck flick, and it received international distribution.
This should have been a red flag for me. A movie that was actually seen? AND it’s Canadian? It should be a lock for the Genies! And yet…nothing. I’ve checked – it is eligible. But for a film like this NOT to get nominated for the easiest awards in film to win – it must REALLY suck. And it does. It REALLY sucks. At first I thought it might just be my aversion to Keira Knightley. I really dislike Keira Knightley, thanks mostly to her incredible chemistry-free performances with Orlando Bloom in them Pirates flicks. But I have always blamed this on Orlando Bloom, who is an actor I dislike even more than Knightey. In watching Silk, and Knightley’s profound lack of chemistry with Michael Pitt, I realized it may be more her fault than Bloom’s. But in this case, I blame Francois Girard even more so. The movie opens with Michael Pitt saying “boy, I sure love this woman” or something like this. I paraphrase. And that is what we have to go on. We don’t really see them falling in love, or even really being in love, we are just supposed to take this at face value. They are in love. OK? Now, proceed with the movie.
And the movie does indeed proceed. Slowly, languidly, as though it is building to something. And then it never gets there. 57 minutes in, and we still haven’t seen the things that made the trailers so interesting for my girlfriend. You see, Michael Pitt needs to travel to Japan, because his small village is dependant on silk. And there is some kind of disease wiping out the silk worms. So he must go to Japan to collect silk worm eggs, bring them back, have them hatch, and then they can begin the work of spinning silk again. Now, I’m no biologist, but it seems to me that if you have thousands of untainted silk worm eggs, and those hatch silk worms, could those silk worms not breed, and create more eggs, and thus be self-sustaining? Why would Pitt need to leave his wife for six months at a time and go BACK to Japan for more eggs every year? This is not explained. But it doesn’t matter. Because the silk worms are not the story. The journey is the story. The journey to Japan, and then the journey back again.
And that journey is explored. Again and again. With long camera shots of the countryside and the scenery all over the world, which are great. And then with long shots of hands touching other hands, hands scooping water, and the back of guys’ heads. Those are not OK. They are boring. Especially since there are so many of them. And they last so long. I guess that Pitt takes a lover in Japan – we are to assume this, although any actual contact with any woman does not happen until the movie is more than an hour in. In the meantime, we are supposed to believe that Pitt has fallen madly and obsessively in love with a Japanese concubine because she…smiled at him over tea? So, he continues to return to Japan, searching desperately for this woman because…it was really good tea? If you’re going to spend hours filming hands and heads and scenery, why wouldn’t you spend at least three minutes showing WHY this man decided to have an affair? Or showing that he actually loves his wife? Three minutes, that’s all I ask. One less picture of a horse, and you’re there. Movie stays the same length, and we might actually care about someone.
There is no sense of connection between ANY of the characters in this movie. Every time we got to one of those long camera shot scenes, and we knew the actual plot wouldn’t begin again for seven minutes, we were on the fast forward button. Toward the end of the film, a little bit of stuff starts to happen. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it action, but at least it’s…stuff. There is a really painful reading of a “sexy” letter from Japan, Keira Knightley falls ill. And we yell at the movie – “just die already”! But everything is so drawn out and slow that it takes another half hour of our life. This movie is painful, irritating and completely inert. There is no reason to watch, and no reason to enjoy it.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
There were certain roles in the history of movies that could be played only by Charlton Heston. Moses, Ben-Hur, Michaelangelo, and El Cid. Heston was never much of an actor when it came to emoting. He was quite the actor, however, when it came to puffing out his chest and speechifying. He was also very adept at looking heroic, twisting his face into furious and righteous anger, and talking justice with his deep, powerful voice and square, stoic chin. Very good stuff, these Heston epics. I’m going to go ahead and assume that everyone has seen The Ten Commandments, because it’s all over TV at Easter time. I will also assume that everyone is aware of Ben-Hur, because it is one of those all-time classics that is on TV so often that it is difficult to miss. Perhaps the same goes for The Agony And The Ecstasy. And I will further make the assumption that virtually no one has seen El Cid, since I have never come across this epic on television or in the video store. The reason it hasn’t been in the video store is that it was not available on DVD. Until this coming Tuesday. El Cid is being released by Alliance Films on DVD in a glorious three-disc set this coming Tuesday. And it is a must-have for any epic film buff.
This is one of those sets that comes with everything. A booklet detailing the massive preparations for shooting this massive epic. A comic book from the 60s that takes us through the entire El Cid movie, such that we don’t even have to watch the film if we would rather take ten minutes to flip through a comic book. And it also has a written introduction to the film by Martin Scorcese, and a bunch of postcard-sized movie posters that nerds like me enjoy putting up on their walls. The El Cid posters are now up beside the similar ones I got in the special editions of The Good The Bad and The Ugly and To Kill A Mockingbird. The three-disc set includes some very cool special features – interviews, behind the scenes stuff, and an endurance-testing feature-length commentary. El Cid is more than three hours long, which means the commentary involves talking for more than three hours straight. That must have been tough.
El Cid is the true story of a Spanish hero named Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, who managed to unite Christian Spain with the Muslim Moors in order to repel an attack against Spain by an evil warlord, Ben Yussef (played wonderfully by Herbert Lom). It is the sort of role Heston was born to play, and the supporting cast is good as well. Watching a young Sophia Loren in the role of Heston’s wife, as they go through a love-hate relationship, certainly lends credence to the idea that she really didn’t start getting really hot until she hit her forties. Sure, she’s attractive in this movie, but the Sophia Loren I think of is far better looking, and also far older. I could go through the rest of the excellent cast too, but there are way too many to mention. In the 60s, you see, there was no CGI, and therefore when you see a crowd of thousands of people, or a battle involving thousands of soldiers, it is actually thousands of actors and extras, and not computer-generated! And that really makes a difference, much as some technophiles would have us believe it does not. The musical score is terrific, and the panoramic battle scenes must be seen in HD or at the very least on a large television in widescreen.
El Cid is not quite the cinematic achievement that are some of Heston’s other best works. It does not quite reach the heights of Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments. Director Anthony Mann, while he was a very capable director, never really lived up to his promise, and this may be his best film. (Also excellent were The Bend In The River and Winchester ’73.) But really, El Cid bears the imprint of Saumel Bronston, the producer, as much if not more as it does the talents of Anthony Mann. Bronston followed up the massive production of El Cid with a few great films, such as King of Kings and The Fall of the Roman Empire, and for a few years was the king of the sweeping cinematic epic. Heston will always be the number one star of the biblical epic and this kind of gigantic film, but Mann will never be considered among the greats of the genre. That title could well go to David Lean, the man behind Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. (This run of three consecutive movies is likely unparallelled in the history of cinema. Perhaps only Francis Ford Coppola comes close, with The Godfather, The Conversation, and The Godfather Part II.)
El Cid is not an all-time classic, but it certainly bears watching. And this three-disc set would be a fantastic addition to the collection of any true movie fanatic. Don’t miss out – it gets released by Alliance Films on Tuesday.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Into the Wild is a terrific film. Sean Penn has now directed his first truly excellent movie, and Emile Hirsch has served notice that he is one of Hollywood’s next major acting stars. Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless, a young college graduate with his whole life ahead of him, who decides to go ahead and live that life. Only, his idea of living that life is much different from his family’s idea of living his life. In fact, it’s an idea far more in keeping with Henry David Thoreau’s idea of living life than it is for most of us. However, whereas Thoreau invented a large portion of his masterpiece, Walden, and did not necessarily spend several years of his life living in the woods at Walden Pond, McCandless really did this. He really did leave after graduating school, gave up all his money and his car and his family, and headed out across America to live in Alaska. Into the Wild is the story of that journey.
And it is a fascinating one. Along the way, Christopher does away with all his identification, changes his name to Alexander Supertramp (no connection to the band), and meets dozens of interesting people. Among them are Catherine Keener, who is terrific, Vince Vaughn, who is reliably great, Kristen Stewart, who is ridiculously hot, and Hal Holbrook, who is magnificent in the role that got him nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Of course, the scenery is beautiful, since this is the story of one man and his desire to be completely alone in the wild. But the dialogue is real and poetic, the actors all deliver first-rate performances, and the message really hits home. That message is not necessarily about the freedom that comes with abandoning all of one’s possessions and doing away with conventional society and a “normal” life. In equal measure, it is about the consequences of doing exactly that. The effect that McCandless’ disappearance had on his entire family, in particular his sister. And the effect that he has on all those he meets. This bright, engaging, attractive young man makes friends extremely easily, and creates lasting relationships in just a few short days.
However, he is doing it in large part because he is running away from that most lasting Relationship of all, Family. And toward the end of the film, he says to Holbrook “the joy of life doesn’t come from human relationships”. But that is the fundamental flaw in McCandless’ philosophy. HIS joy actually DOES come from human relationships. Of course, by the time he reaches this epiphany, it is too late, and he has set forth on a journey where he discovers himself, and answers all his questions, too late. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say he dies at the end – the trailers said as much. But as with most really good movies, it’s the journey that makes them worthwhile.
Saturday, May 10th, 2008
Asian cinema loves the Shakespeare. Akira Kurosawa based half his work on the works of the bard, most notably Ran (King Lear) and Throne Of Blood (Macbeth). And of course, Shakespeare borrowed heavily from others in terms of stories and structure, which means that his stories, and the Asian movies that accompany them, are hundreds of years old. He wrote a play called “Hamlet” that was based on the legend of Amleth, as told by the thirteenth century scholar Saxo Grammaticus. The latest movie from Alliance Films, The Legend of Black Scorpion, is a re-telling of Hamlet. Therefore, the story is about 800 years old, and it feels that way, as it should. Black Scorpion does not credit Grammaticus in the credits, but then, neither did Shakespeare.
The Legend of Black Scorpion features the incomparable Zhang Ziyi, one of the most beautiful women in all of Asian cinema. (You might remember her from such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero.) One complaint I have with this film is that she doesn’t fight. I love watching her fight. The Emperor of China has been murdered by his own brother. That brother has usurped the throne, and taken the former Emperor’s wife as his own. The old Emperor’s son has been banished, since he is the only one who could topple the current empire and lay a legitimate claim to the throne. But when that young man fights through traps and assassins to reach the kingdom, things get all weird. And Shakespearean.
You see, this young man was once in love with the Empress. He wanted her for himself, but his father married her instead, and now she lives with the uncle who murdered his dad. They seem to still be in love, but there is another woman at the palace that he runs around with while he is waiting for his chance to take the throne, and, by extension, his step-mother. And aunt. Hmmm. How very Shakespeare. This nephew is an actor more so than he is a fighter, and he puts on plays for the amusement of the court, plays that are pointed and directed at his murderous uncle. In true Shakespearean style, these plays are carried out with all the performers wearing masks. There is some great dialogue, especially a speech about wearing a mask and acting and swordfighting. Which is really what the movie is all about.
Well, that and jealousy, betrayal, and the inability to contain one’s inner nature. There are some really cool fight scenes. Not as cool as the ones in Hero, but above-average, even for Hong Kong martial arts cinema. We are not sure whether or not we like the Empress, at least until the end of the film, and even then it’s ambiguous. There are relationships between other characters that add a lot to the movie, especially the relationship between Yin (one of the Emperor’s advisors) and his son. It reminded me a lot of the relationship between Robert The Bruce and his father in Braveheart. The old man wanting to be diplomatic, the young man headstrong and uncompromising. And yet, willing to defend his father to his last breath.
And there are a lot of last breaths in Legend of Black Scorpion. After all, it’s Hamlet. Anyone who has any knowledge of Hamlet or of Shakespearean tragedy can probably guess how this film is going to end, so it really won’t come as a surprise. But I would caution against skipping out too soon, before the credits begin to roll. The final shot in this movie is magnificent, a beautiful shot that caps everything so well it would be worth watching even if the movie was bad. But it isn’t. The Legend of Black Scorpion will not end up being a Hong Kong classic, but with good swordfights, solid acting, great dialogue and the incredible ability that Chinese directors seem to have of using colours effectively, it is well worth renting.