Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Year 4, Day 77 - 3/17/12 - Movie #1,077

BEFORE: I could have gone is several different directions after the pirate chain - to the Musketeers, for example, or followed up the appearance of Queen Elizabeth as a character with a couple of notable films about her - but let's finish the Errol Flynn appearances.  Yes, I know it's St. Patrick's Day, and that Flynn wasn't Irish (though the movie studios tried to make people think that), he was Australian.  But that's OK, since Robin Hood wasn't Irish either, right?

THE PLOT:  When Prince John and the Norman Lords begin oppressing the Saxon masses in King Richard's absence, a Saxon lord fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla army.

AFTER: The Robin Hood story is a little strange, since it doesn't come from one particular author but instead from a number of medieval ballads and poems.  So any attempt to cobble together pieces of the various stories into a narrative could result in a patchwork of elements that may or may not work.  The King Arthur stories are the same way, you're really judging how well the various pieces fit.

This was sort of the definitive collection of Robin Hood tales for many years, the Disney animated version seems to have riffed off of this one, with the archery contest, the rivalry with the Sheriff of Nottingham, etc.

This one was pretty upbeat, and the action was good, and Flynn's affinity for using chairs and tables in his swordfighting almost seemed reminiscent of some Jackie Chan-type stunts.

NITPICK POINT: Robin competes in the archery contest here, wearing a disguise - but it's not much of one, it's really just a different color hat.  Believable?  Not at all.  "Hey, that looks like Robin Hood, but it can't be, since he always wears a GREEN hat."  Yeah, must be a different guy...

NITPICK POINT #2: The famous shot where Robin's shot splits the other arrow - but how is that counted as a win?  That seems to me like it should count as a tie, right?

Also starring Claude Rains (carrying over from "The Sea Hawk"), Alan Hale (ditto), Olivia De Havilland (last seen in "Captain Blood"), Basil Rathbone (ditto), Ian Hunter, Patric Knowles.

RATING: 5 out of 10 mutton legs

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Sea Hawk

Year 4, Day 76 - 3/16/12 - Movie #1,076

BEFORE: Wrapping up the pirate chain tonight with another Errol Flynn classic.  I just read an article in the Star Wars Insider, where the stunt coordinator from the prequels listed his top 5 movie sword fights, and this film was included.

THE PLOT: Geoffrey Thorpe is an adventurous and dashing pirate, who feels that he should pirate the Spanish ships for the good of England. In one such battle, he overtakes a Spanish ship and when he comes aboard he finds Dona Maria, a beautiful Spanish royal.

AFTER: This film's plot has links to a distinct historic event, the Spanish Armada of 1588.  I'm not saying that it's historically accurate, but I hope it got some of the details right, in its account of the days leading up to that event.  Part of the motivation for the Armada was Spain's dissatisfaction with English privateers raiding ships (privateers = pirates).

Watching this one was a bit of a struggle for me, though - I kept falling asleep while watching it in my usual post-midnight movie timeslot, finally quit halfway through and finished it at the office after 5 pm.  Too much talkie-talkie about trade routes and treason, and not enough stabby-stabby.  Congratulations, you found a way to make the life of a pirate boring.

I found it unusual that Flynn's character, Captain Thorpe, was portrayed at the start of the film as someone who gets tongue-tide around women.  That sure doesn't fit with what we now know about Flynn's extra-curricural adventures in Hollywood.  Flynn seemed like the Barbra Streisand of the 1930's, in that he knew EXACTLY what camera angle he looked best at, and always tried to face the camera just so.  How much time did he spend in front of the mirror, perfecting the most dashing angle?

When the action shifts to Panama, there was a distinct change to a sepia tone, at least in the copy I taped off of TCM.  I wonder if that was in the original print, or part of a restoration - anyway, it works to denote the heat of the tropics, or perhaps the alien nature of the New World.  I haven't seen anything like that in any other film, except for "Traffic".

As for that swordfight, it's probably the best, most exciting part of the film - Thorpe takes on 4 British soldiers at a time, how nice of them to all move at 1/4 speed so he can battle them all together.  But then in the final duel, chairs, tables and candles all get thrown into the mix, for some down-and-dirty fighting that really looks like both parties are doing whatever it takes to win.

NITPICK POINT: The isthmus of Panama was a hot trading spot, even back in the 1580's?  You guys know there was no Panama Canal back then, right?

NITPICK POINT #2: For all the Spanish nobles and conquistadors seen in this film, there's not one Spaniard with anything close to a Spanish accent.

Also starring Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains (last seen, er, unseen in "The Invisible Man"), Flora Robson, and Alan Hale (father of the guy who played Skipper on "Gilligan's Island")

RATING: 3 out of 10 leg-irons

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Captain Blood

Year 4, Day 75 - 3/15/12 - Movie #1,075

BEFORE: Stepping into the Wayback Machine tonight for a look at how this whole crazy thing started - I've never seen any of Errol Flynn's films before, but he sort of set the tone for the pirate movies that followed, right?  Linking from last night's film, Johnny Depp was also in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" with Christopher Lee, who was also in "The Dark Avenger" with Errol Flynn (thanks again to the Oracle of Bacon).

THE PLOT: An enslaved doctor and his comrades in chains escape and become pirates.

AFTER: Like last night's film, this one begins with a trial, where justice is not being served very well.  Flynn's title character is a doctor who's sold into slavery after giving medical treatment to an enemy of the realm.  After escaping and commandeering a ship, he splits all treasure among the men with extra shares going to the injured, thus accidentally inventing Workmen's Compensation.

His ship enjoys a brief partnership with a group of French pirates, but their leader finds Capt. Blood's articles of piracy too difficult to follow, particularly the one about not molesting women prisoners - well, he is French after all.  The highlight of the film for me was probably the fencing match after the two captains can't resolve their differences.

By contrast, the set backdrops look very fake - the cloud patterns never seem to change behind the ship.  And once the sea battles begin, the long shots of the ship are clearly that of miniatures.  I guess that's just the way it was done back in the 1930's.  It's also laughable how many times Errol Flynn is seen framed perfectly, from just the right angle, gazing off into the distance, allowing the camera to catch his profile.  All that's missing is the little gleam on his teeth.

Blood's ship pulls a fast one by sailing under a number of different flags, which enables it to approach enemy ships.  I always wondered why ships flew such blatant identifying markers - doesn't it just tip everyone off as to who is friend and who is foe?  Why fly any flag at all, other than for national pride, of course...

NITPICK POINT: Blood seems surprised to learn that England and France are at war.  But weren't they always at war back in the 1600's?

NITPICK POINT #2: Blood sees two French ships attacking Port Royal, so he brings his ship in between them, and takes out the one to the right, er, starboard.  But what was the other ship's crew doing during this time?  Just watching?  Wouldn't they attack from the port side?

Also starring Olivia De Havilland, Basil Rathbone.

RATING: 4 out of 10 cannonballs

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Year 4, Day 74 - 3/14/12 - Movie #1,074

BEFORE: Perhaps you guessed this film would pop up this week.  But unlike the pirates, when I set out on this quest over three years ago, I had no map.  I let the tides of organizational logic and the occasional wind of whimsy take me where they may.  After all, if there's a pattern to when movies premiere on premium cable, it's beyond my comprehension.  So when I got tired of waiting for this one, I went ahead and scheduled a pirate-themed chain, and ordered the DVD from Amazon.  It arrived just a few days before the film premiered on the Starz channel.  My timing was solid, but my patience may need some improvement.

I'm now planning my schedule for April, and it starts with superhero films again - so it's really lucky that "Green Lantern" will premiere on cable this weekend (for St. Patrick's day, nice) but where is the film "Kick-Ass"?  For that matter, where is "The Fighter", "Precious" and "Hot Tub Time Machine"?  How's a guy supposed to plan his movie-watching this way?

Anyway, about the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise - I enjoyed the first film, thought the second one was a bit odd, and the third was a complicated mess. But then they got a new director, so we'll see how that works.  Linking from "Treasure Island", Jack Palance was also in "Young Guns" with Charlie Sheen, who was in "Platoon" with Johnny Depp.

THE PLOT: Jack Sparrow and Barbossa embark on a quest to find the elusive fountain of youth, only to discover that Blackbeard and his daughter are after it too.

AFTER: The complexity of "At World's End" is gone, so they did an OK job of simplifying things - no tokens, lost swords, map pieces, five golden rings or what have you.  Everyone here has ONE goal, to find the fountain of youth.  But, just because a thing is rumored to exist doesn't mean that it actually does.  But, this is a Disney film with a hefty amount of fantasy, so the outlook is probably good.

That said, the process of activating the fountain turns out to be incredibly complicated - which doesn't make much sense to me.  Wouldn't a magical fountain have been around for eons, long before the man-made objects used to make it work would have been invented?  Silver chalices, incantations - is it a natural thing, or a magic one, or both? 

Structurally, I've got a problem with two factions - let's call them Team Blackbeard and Team Barbossa - vying for the Fountain for the majority of the film, then finding out late in the game that there's a THIRD side.  What gives?  OK, so they're glimpsed at the start of the film, but then not seen again for an hour and a half.  It would be like watching "Return of the Jedi" and finding out that in addition to the Rebellion and the Empire, the Separatists exist, and are attacking Endor.

NITPICK POINT: Without giving anything away, I found the ending to be too similar to one of the Indiana Jones films.  Actually, to two of them.

Also starring Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, Ian McShane, Kevin McNally, Richard Griffiths, with cameos from Keith Richards, Judi Dench.

RATING: 6 out of 10 rowboats

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Treasure Island (2001)

Year 4, Day 73 - 3/13/12 - Movie #1,073

BEFORE: Yes, I realize that I watched "Muppet Treasure Island" before the non-Muppet version.  And I have to live with that.  There are a lot of different versions of this story, and tonight I'm going with the 2001 version starring Jack Palance because - well, Jack Palance.  Linking from "Cutthroat Island", Geena Davis was also in "Stuart Little" with Bruno Kirby, who was also in "City Slickers" with Mr. Palance (last seen in...jeez, "Young Guns" back in 2009)

In other news, my trivia team won last night, for the first time in about a year - so we had our own treasure to divide up at the end.

THE PLOT: A classic tale of pirates and buried gold.

AFTER: You kind of want to see a film of this story remain faithful to the famous novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.  So much of pirate lore can be traced back to it, after all...  I read the book as a kid, and I've just reviewed the plot summary on Wikipedia.  I've determined that this version commits the following storytelling sins, from where I sit:

1) It adds an opening scene with some of the key players on the aforementioned island, during the burying of the treasure.  They're not the ones doing the actual burying (Note: If a pirate asks for volunteers to help bury his treasure, say "No" - dead men tell no tales) so why add this scene?  The whole suspense of the plot hinges on the mysterious strangers who show up at the Admiral Benbow Inn, and if we already know who they are, all of the plot's mystery is out the window.  A major, major character hides in plain sight, and finding out he's really a ruthless pirate is the main reveal of the book.  Here we learn the names of all the pirates in the opening scene - dumb move.

2) Too much time is spent on land, particularly on a slapsticky chase scene between one of the pirates and our hero, young Jim Hawkins.  This is a 90-minute movie, and it's 40 minutes before the Hispaniola sets sail.  That's almost half the film devoted to the set-up, when all the juicy stuff happens at sea.

3) They changed the ending, which really bothers me.  With two factions searching for the treasure, it's all about who lives, who dies, and who gets the gold.  The final group of players that survives here is quite different from the group left standing at the end of Stevenson's novel.  Here we see the benefit of being the only big-name actor in a cast - but an author has already done most of the heavy lifting for you, why discard his plot points?

4) The dialogue seems very clunky, almost as if it were improvised.  It seems like they forgot to pack the scripts when they headed out on location to the island, and were just working from a copy of the Cliff's Notes.  Come to think of it, that would explain the changed ending, too.  Come on - in an entire novel's worth of dialogue, you couldn't lift a few classic lines?  What about Long John Silver's famous line, "Them that die'll be the lucky ones!"  Where did THAT go?

5) In the final battle, not one person seems to know how to hide behind cover once the shooting starts.  No one seems able to die in a convincing manner, either.  It feels kind of like they were coming to the end of the location shoot and needed to reduce the cast quickly.

NITPICK POINT: We come to the dreaded "Black Spot" - supposedly, once a pirate receives it, he's marked for death.  Why would anyone then reach for it and accept it?  For that matter, why would a band of ruthless pirates telegraph their move - why not just attack someone and kill him?  Isn't that what ruthless means?  The Black Spot is NOT a deathmark, it's a pirate summons.  It's a warning that the recipient must meet someone's demand, or face the possibility of death.  There IS a way out.

NITPICK POINT #2: With the majority of the cast on the island, Jim sails the ship (OK, the ship kind of drifts, which is also acceptable) to where only he can find it.  This should be a beach or a cove or something, but in the film it just seems like the ship is just off some random coast.  Wouldn't anyone be able to just walk around the island and find it?  Plus a couple key players seem to completely forget about the ship that brought them to the island.  Huh?  It's one thing to acknowledge that the ship is in the hands of your enemies, but you'd think they would have a plan for taking it back, not just forget about it.

Also starring Kevin Zegers, Patrick Bergin (last seen in "Patriot Games"), Malcolm Stoddard, Christopher Benjamin, David Robb, Walter Sparrow.

RATING: 4 out of 10 leeches

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cutthroat Island

Year 4, Day 72 - 3/12/12 - Movie #1,072

BEFORE: This one's generally regarded as a giant flop - can it really be that bad?  Or was it just a victim of bad timing, released 8 years before "Pirates of the Caribbean", when audiences were ready for pirate films to be in vogue?

Linking from "Muppet Treasure Island", it turns out one actor played a pirate in both that film and this one, his name is Peter Geeves.  He had a few lines last night, but he may just be in the background in tonight's film.  My thanks to the Oracle of Bacon for pointing that out to me - it's been an invaluable resource when I need to find a link between two actors.

THE PLOT: A female pirate and her companion race against their rivals to find a hidden island that contains a fabulous treasure.

AFTER: I don't think this film lives up to the horrible reputation it got for being a financial failure.  It's a serviceable action film, with a lot of familiar elements - pirates, a treasure map, sailing ships, the hated British navy, even a monkey mascot.  So why did this film fail, and "Pirates of the Caribbean", a film with essentially the same elements, succeed?

The big difference, I think, is in the tone.  This film takes itself WAY too seriously.  Sure, it's got complicated fights, impossible stunts, and quirky pirates, which were all present in Disney's hit as well, but nobody seems like they're having much fun.   And that was a key element to the Johnny Depp/Orlando Bloom trilogy - it was fun from start to finish.

"Pirates of the Caribbean" also threw in a hefty dose of the supernatural, with zombie pirates, voodoo priestesses, giant squids, etc.  There's none of that here, this film pretty much sticks to the realm of the possible - so maybe you can say that it didn't push the envelope quite far enough.  It's an action film, but not a fantasy film.

So, by comparison, this one's just boring, really.  Not bad, per se, unless you find boring to be bad.

The film stars Matthew Modine (last seen in "Any Given Sunday"), who I've met a few times - he's done a couple voice-overs for some animated shorts, so I processed his SAG paperwork, and he's come to a couple of parties at our studio.  Very friendly guy, and he's into promoting bicycle-related causes to reduce pollution, and has directed a few short films himself.

Also starring Geena Davis (last seen in "The Accidental Tourist'), Frank Langella (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), Maury Chaykin (last seen in "Barney's Version"), Rex Linn (from "CSI: Miami"), Christopher Masterson, Harris Yulin, Stan Shaw.

RATING: 4 out of 10 musket balls

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Muppet Treasure Island

Year 4, Day 71 - 3/11/12 - Movie #1,071

BEFORE: A relatively short film tonight, since I'm losing an hour - I'll spare you my bi-annual rant about why I hate Daylight Saving Time (and yes, its "Saving", not "Savings"),  but since it's an election year, I'll restate my claim that I will support any non-Libertarian candidate at the local, state or national level who's willing to work toward abolishing it.

"The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is my lead-in to a chain of seafaring films.  In taking personal inventory for this project, I realized I'd only seen one Muppet movie (the first one, back in 1978), so I'm planning to watch the others.  Still, I had to decide where to include this one - with the Muppet films, or with the pirate films?  Which element is more important?  I suppose I could have used it as a link between the two topics, but I'll have to pass on that idea, and hit the other Muppet films later.

Linking from last night's film, Liam Neeson also appeared with Frank Oz in a sci-fi film of some note whose name escapes me...

THE PLOT: The Muppets' twist on the classic tale, as Kermit the Frog and his colleagues go on a warfare against ruthless pirates.

AFTER: Well, I guess we can add the Muppets to the list of things I outgrew years ago.  Though I know some adult hipsters who are into the Henson films hardcore, for the most part I regard them as for kids only.  It seems a little arrogant to me for someone to take a classic novel like this, and decide that what it really needs is a bunch of puppets, and some peppy songs.  Oh, and a lot of inside jokes.

If I've got issues with Disney adding singing gargoyles to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", and changing the ending (a big classic lit no-no, if you ask me), then I've got to take issue with shoehorning Miss Piggy into the plot by changing the gender of a major character.  I thought no women were allowed on board a ship!  Or pigs or frogs, for that matter.  Rats do make some sense, however.

Now, I admit that some of the jokes do land.  I guess if you throw enough of them out there, some of them are going to stick.  And the human actors do a fine job, I'm just not buying into the rest of it.

Starring Tim Curry (last heard in "Queer Duck: The Movie"), Kevin Bishop, Billy Connolly (last heard in "Open Season 2"), Jennifer Saunders, and the Muppets (duh).

RATING: 5 out of 10 skeletons