Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Phantom

Year 4, Day 91 - 3/31/12 - Movie #1,090

BEFORE: Well, that was another film about a time-jumper.  And I'm itching to get back to that topic, but no channel has run "Hot Tub Time Machine" yet.  What's the hold-up?  But "Prince of Persia" finally provides a link that helps me make my way back to superheroes.  Which is a topic I've covered before, but I got a bunch of new DVDs at Christmastime, and the pay channels have been kind in running the last few films that I needed for this upcoming chain.

Linking from last night's film, Ben Kingsley was in the film "Bloodrayne" with Billy Zane, making his first appearance in the countdown - yeah, that seems about right.

THE PLOT: The Phantom, descendent of a line of African heroes, travels to New York to thwart a criminal genius.

AFTER: This seems like another one of those films where the timing was just a bit off - it was released in 1996, after the first "Batman" film wave had cooled off, but before the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" films made superheroes hot again.   These things go in cycles, and no one can control them.

In terms of tone, this one is way too campy.  Audiences seem to like some humor in their superhero movies, but not too much.  It's a delicate balance to strike - and sometimes when the characters take it too seriously, it just comes off as ridiculous.  Superheroes can wisecrack like Spider-Man does, but there's a limit to how far actors can take that.

The Phantom always seemed like an odd character to me - he lived in the jungle, but he wasn't like Tarzan.  He had no super-powers, just fighting ability and I think a bunch of gadgets, yet he had no visible source of income.  Also he was descended from a long line of Phantoms, which allowed the cartoonist to set a storyline in just about any era in the last few centuries.  But there was never an awkward transitional period where the old Phantom was too old to run around in tights, and he hadn't trained the new Phantom to take over yet.  I guess they were just lucky that when one Phantom died or retired, his son was just about ready to take over the job.

This film seemed like an attempt to cross-pollinate the superhero film with an Indiana Jones-style action film.  There's a quest for some artifacts, three skulls made of different materials, and getting all three together would enable someone to (what else?) take over the world.  Because you don't run all over looking for three magic skulls just to put them up on your mantlepiece.

Beyond that, there's not much of a story here, they didn't give the characters much to do besides going from Point A to Point B, and having the villains threaten people with guns and/or swords.  And I fail to see how the skulls enable someone to take over the world, considering what happened when they were all finally brought together.

It's somewhat amusing when the Phantom, aka Kit Walker, has to travel to 1930's New York City, and it becomes a real "fish-out-of-water" experience.  And wouldn't you know that the woman who gets caught up in everything is someone he knows from his school days - what are the chances of that?  She'd probably become Mrs. Phantom and the mother to the next Phantom if the movie went on a little longer, or maybe they were saving that for the sequel that never got made.

But wait, how did young Kit Walker go to prep school, if his father was the last Phantom - wouldn't he have been home-schooled on Bengallah Island, and trained from day 1 to take over the gig?  Something doesn't add up here.

The Phantom also has imaginary (?) conversations with his father, the last Phantom, at least until he can avenge his death.  Hey, take the advice while you can get it, I suppose - but maybe it's time to start seeing someone about your mental condition, if you're talking to dead people.

NITPICK POINT: The Phantom rode on the outside of a sea-plane?  All the way from New York to some tropical island in the Indian Ocean?  Isn't that, like, 14 hours of hanging on?  Plus, wouldn't they have needed to stop the plane to refuel?

NITPICK POINT #2: The lead female villain seemed to switch allegiances in the middle of a fight scene.  Just one line of dialogue, and suddenly she's on your side?  I'm not buying it.

Also starring Kristy Swanson (last seen in "Hot Shots!"), Catherine Zeta-Jones (last seen in "Chicago"), Treat Williams (last seen in "The Devil's Own"), James Remar (last seen in "The Cotton Club"), with cameos from Patrick McGoohan (last seen in "A Time to Kill"), David Proval, and Casey Siemaszko.

RATING: 3 out of 10 jungle drums

Friday, March 30, 2012

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Year 4, Day 90 - 3/30/12 - Movie #1,089

BEFORE: Picking up on the video-game vibe this week - "Tron" was an arcade game, and "Sucker Punch" just felt like one.  "Prince of Persia" has been around a while as a computer game in one form or another since the late 80's.  And linking from "Sucker Punch", Jena Malone was in "Donnie Darko" with Jake Gyllenhaal.

THE PLOT: A young fugitive prince and princess must stop a villain who unknowingly threatens to destroy the world with a special dagger that enables the magic sand inside to reverse time.

AFTER: I was just reading in an issue of GAMES magazine about a man named Dave Morice, who once wrote a 10,000 page poem in a 4-month marathon session.  (Hah! 4 months - what a piker!  Try four years, buddy!) He wrote the equivalent of a 100-page poem each day for 100 days - now, I don't know how many words were on each page, or whether they were double-spaced, but I have an affinity now for projects of this nature.  When I order a printed book of my annual musings about movies, each one is pretty impressive in size - and three of them together makes me feel almost like I've accomplished something.  Just a few paragraphs each day, kids, and you too can write the Great American Novel!

As Dave writes about the marathon "poem" (which also includes news articles, e-mails, lists of palindromes, spoofs of other poems, and the odd wordplay puzzle or two): "I became the poem, and the poem became me...  If I was bored, the poem was bored.  If I was happy, the poem was happy.  The marathon poem didn't limit itself to simple perfection, it welcomed imperfection, and in doing so, it reached a more complex level of perfection."

I have to echo some of Dave's feelings, as I gear up to approach the 1,100-film mark.  Of course I love a good movie, but I also love ripping on a bad movie.  But what constitutes "good", and what makes up "bad"?  Aren't these terms extremely personal and also arbitrary?  Can't I learn something from a film, even if it's pointless or not up my alley?  Hopefully so...  But I should probably watch out for when I have a bad day at work or something, and whether that affects my feelings about the movie I watch later that night.

Which brings me back to "Prince of Persia", a film made by Hollywood insiders that probably had very few actual Persians in it.  Plenty of Brits, and a few Americans - and OK, I guess no one expects them to shoot in Iran (modern-day site of Persia), so they opted for Morocco.  I bet most people couldn't tell the difference anyway.

The key element here from adapting the video-game is the "do-over" aspect of the dagger - in the game, if you miss a jump or get ambushed by a character, you can "rewind" the last few sections of action and get another chance at things.  Which any good video-game gives you these days, anyway - back in my day, if Pac-Man got eaten by a ghost, that was it, no do-overs.  Except for the two extra lives, though...

But I'm not sure this translates so well to film - though I am a big fan of time-travel in general, this is a chance for someone to correct all of his actions that are mistakes, but it's depicted like an out-of-body experience, during which the user can witness the action being reversed.  Didn't Nicolas Cage have this same power in "Next"?  Wait, that was predicting the future - same deal in the end, really.  Also, shades of "Donnie Darko".

But overall, I found this film rather hard to follow.  Maybe it was all the Arabic names, but I think also there might have been too many characters, and a few too many reversals over who's got the dagger, and who's fighting who.  Then again, maybe I just had a rough day and dozed off a few times.  When that happens, I try to finish each film, but I've got to give up at some point, if I'm going to get any real sleep before my workday begins.  It's my own personal "do-over", in some cases I need to watch the end of a film at work after 5 pm.

Bottom line - not enough story to justify two hours of my time.  Probably works better as a video-game, as most video-games tend to do.

Also starring Gemma Arterton (last seen in "Clash of the Titans"), Ben Kingsley (last seen in "Schindler's List"), Alfred Molina (last seen in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), Toby Kebbell (ditto), Steve Toussaint, Richard Coyle, Ronald Pickup (last seen in "The Fourth Protocol").

RATING: 4 out of 10 ostriches

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sucker Punch

Year 4, Day 89 - 3/29/12 - Movie #1,088

BEFORE: If I remember correctly, this is another film that got less-than-stellar reviews - but I don't exactly know why.  Still, I've heard a lot about it, particularly while at comic-cons, and it is from the same director as "300" and "Watchmen", the only film so far to score a 10 on my personal rating scale.

And it shares an actor with "Tron: Legacy", a man named Ron Selmour.  Enjoy your moment in the spotlight, Mr. Selmour.

THE PLOT: A young girl is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the mental facility.

AFTER: I can see how a lot of people might have found this film challenging.  As near as I can piece together, it's about a young woman who gets committed to a mental institution, possibly during the 1950's, and to deal with the horrors of her situation, she retreats into a fantasy world where she and the other girls are nightclub dancers and/or prostitutes, yet still in some form of institution.  (Did you often find dance-halls adjacent to asylums, back in the 1950's?)  And when things go south in THAT reality, she retreats into another reality that resembles a war zone, and she and the other grrls (sic) battle zombie soldiers, robot terrorists and uhh-uhh, that would be telling.

In an "Inception"-like manner, there's a dream within a dream.  Perhaps the best comparison is to "Brazil", when Sam Lowry imagined a fantasy battle-world in order to deal with the atrocities and bureaucracies he encountered while working for the government.  But's it's also like "Halo" inside "Cabaret/Caged Heat" inside "Girl, Interrupted".  Furthermore, like "Tron: Legacy" it adheres to the "Wizard of Oz" pattern, since the people in the real world are also represented by their similar-looking counterparts in the fantasy world. 

I'm torn, because there's stuff here that's wildly inventive - more original ideas than you might see in three regular movies.  And if you want to have a nerd-gasm (or any other kind of -gasm) watching girls in skimpy outfits dance or blow stuff up real good, then more power to you.  But it's mostly surface-level stuff, there's no character development, or any real soul.  Though I guess watching an action movie looking for high drama might be a little like watching a porn movie for the great dialogue.

NITPICK POINT: I wish the main character, Babydoll, were capable of having more than one dopey/mopey expression, but it just wasn't in the cards.  Not sure if that's an actress problem or a director problem.  But she seemed lobotomized from the very start.

NITPICK POINT #2: Babydoll's dancing, in reality level 2, is supposed to be incredibly mesmerizing.  BUT, we the audience never get to see it, because that's when we enter reality level 3.  How do I know for sure she can dance?  Any way you look at this, it's a cop-out.  Show, don't tell.

Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish (last heard in "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), Jena Malone (last seen in "The Messenger"), Vanessa Hudgens, Carla Gugino (last seen in "American Gangster"), Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn (last seen in "The Bourne Ultimatum"), with a cameo from Jon Hamm (last heard in "Shrek Forever After")

RATING: 5 out of 10 samurai swords

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tron: Legacy

Year 4, Day 88 - 3/28/12 - Movie #1,087

BEFORE: From a film I was dreading to one that I've really been looking forward to, and Jeff Bridges carries over from "Tideland".  Good to see him up and around again.  I was into the original "Tron" at the time, both the film and the arcade game - in fact I spent a lot of time, and most of my paper route earnings, at one arcade or another.  Back in 1982, the best games were at the arcade, and home gaming was in its infancy - I had one of those Odyssey games that only played 8 different variations on Pong, and then of course we got the Atari 5200.  8-bit to 16-bit, that was a big year.

If you think about it, this film fits in my chain because the original "Tron" was really like an updated "Wizard of Oz", with the newly-invented video-game/computer world standing in for Oz - Flynn would be Dorothy, Tron is the Tin Man, the MCP is the Wizard, and David Warner's executive was like the Wicked Witch.  And the programs in the video-game world looked suspiciously like the people working for the company in the real world.  It's funny how some movie conventions don't change, right?

THE PLOT: The son of a virtual world designer goes looking for his father and ends up inside the digital world that his father designed.

AFTER: Movie plot points don't change, but the special effects sure do!  We've come a long way in 30 years - this makes Tron look like it was in 2-D, which it kinda was, if you think about it.  Suddenly there's this whole other dimension, let's call it "up", and everything looks bigger, fuller, more fleshed out - the computer world now looks like the city in "Blade Runner"!

I'm sort of glad that they waited so long to do a sequel to "Tron" - if they had done it in the 1990's, it would have been filled with a bunch of virtual-reality crap,  and if they had done it in the early 2000's, it would have been all internet stuff.  So here's to "doing nothing" for 30 years and waiting for the pieces to fall into place.

Especially since motion capture and CGI have allll-most gotten to the point where you can't tell they're being used.  (not quite, but I applaud the effort).  So we have Jeff Bridges in two roles - as the programmer Flynn in his later years, and thanks to special effects, the young Bridges (or a simulation, obviously) appears as Flynn's alter ego/polar opposite, a program named Clu.

Some of the action sequences in this one had me on the edge of my seat - and THIS is really the way they should update a film from the 80's, when you think about it.  A point off for a somewhat corny ending, but other than that, really good job tonight, Hollywood.

Also starring Garrett Hedlund (last seen in "Friday Night Lights"), Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen (last heard in "Alice in Wonderland"), with a cameo from Cillian Murphy.

RATING: 9 out of 10 light-cycles

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Year 4, Day 87 - 3/27/12 - Movie #1,086

BEFORE: I've been avoiding this one, because I remember that it got horrible reviews when it was released.  But it's supposedly another film about a little girl entering a fantasy world, so it (hopefully) makes some sense to include it in the same week as "Alice in Wonderland" and "Return to Oz".  I generally like and respect the work of Terry Gilliam, but I'll have to try and judge this one on its own merits.

Linking from "Nancy Drew", Marshall Bell, who played the creepy caretaker, was also in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" with Jeff Bridges (last seen in "True Grit").

THE PLOT:  A lonely girl gets trapped in an eerie fantasy world after her irresponsible parents abandon her.

AFTER: Well, the film name-checks "Alice in Wonderland", with the main character reading that book, and an imaginary fall down a rabbit-hole.  But I found it tough to pinpoint WHEN this girl entered the fantasy world, or IF she ever truly did.  Oh, there were glimpses of what went on in her imagination, but as for a complete trip to some imaginary land, I'm not sure it was depicted.

The little girl, Jeliza-Rose, does talk to a bunch of doll-heads, and worse, they seem to answer back in her voice.  I suppose this is to be expected from a young girl left on her own, it's her way of coping with the tragedies she's experienced.  Still, it's even creepier than that kid in "The Shining" who talked to the little man that lived in his finger.

Gilliam has depicted mental illness before, as in "The Fisher King" and "12 Monkeys".  But there it was clear who wasn't all there, and those people were surrounded by more normal people for contrast.  Even in "Brazil" we saw the main character's imagination take over - but it was always a definite mental fantasy, and he seemed to be the only one having problems dealing with the real world.  In "Tideland", every single character seems messed up in some way - and what's the message there?

Then we come to a series of plot points that I won't divulge here (believe me when I say that the girl's parents checking out is only the tip of the iceberg), and each one is more ill-advised than the last.  Not just because they all make the girl's life worse, but they're all things that make the movie darker and more depressing, until it's just one big downward spiral of tragedy.  Generally speaking, that's not what people like to go to the cinemas to see.

Worse yet, so much of it seems to be done for shock value - I can't justify the narrative benefits of things that are edging close to child molestation and necrophilia.  It makes me want to look at all of Gilliam's films in a chronological fashion, to try and pinpoint when things started to go so wrong.  Can "12 Monkeys" really be the last Gilliam film I enjoyed?  As in "Tideland", so many things in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" just seemed so ill-advised.

It makes me want to know more about his process - did getting critical acclaim for "Brazil" and "The Fisher King" give him the clout to tell whatever story he wanted, without anyone else having veto power?  Did he surround himself with people who were unwilling or unable to tell him that his story was completely unappealing and unworkable?

I've seen creative filmmakers get too enamored with a story that, at its core, actually has no appeal.  But sometimes a director can get too close to a story, so that he can't see its faults, or worse, doesn't want to see them.  Or perhaps when he does, he's already spent years developing the film, and may feel that he can't back out.  And I'm guessing that maybe "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" looked like very difficult screenplays - on paper, they may not have looked like they were going to work as films.  But that doesn't mean that every bad screenplay will find its way to working as a piece of cinema.  Not every story problem can be fixed with editing and special effects.

NITPICK POINT: Why were the scenes included of Jeff Bridges performing in a rock band?  Knowing his backstory added exactly nothing to the character, unless it was to explain his drug use.  But even still, it was unnecessary, since rock stars aren't the only people who shoot up.

Also starring Jodelle Ferland, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher, and Jennifer Tilly (last seen in "The Fabulous Baker Boys").

RATING: 2 out of 10 squirrels

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nancy Drew

Year 4, Day 86 - 3/26/12 - Movie #1,085

BEFORE: This may seem a little odd, since I didn't read Nancy Drew books when I was a kid.  I think I read a couple Hardy Boys mysteries, but preferred the Three Investigators - because they got to hang out with Alfred Hitchcock.  But I needed something to fill up a DVD with "The Westing Game", which was based on one of my favorite young adult books.  Back in my day, our teen heros solved crimes, they didn't hang out with vampires and werewolves or fight in futuristic battle arenas.  Anyway, this counts as being based on children's lit, so this is sort of the best place in the chain for it, as I mostly wrap up that topic.

Linking from "Return to Oz", Fairuza Balk was also in "Almost Famous" with Anna Paquin, who was also in "Scream 4" with Emma Roberts (last seen in "Valentine's Day").

THE PLOT:  Teen detective Nancy Drew accompanies her father on a business trip to Los Angeles, where she happens upon clues to a murder mystery involving a movie star.

AFTER: Ehh, this wasn't really my thing - the mystery itself was only slightly above what you'd see on an old Scooby-Doo cartoon.  I suppose it's an interesting character study, since Ms. Drew wears vintage clothing and has a fastidious nature.  Does that make her quirky enough to be a detective?  What personality traits do lead someone into a life of sleuthing?  Is there a definite personality type for that line of work?  The people who make TV dramas like "The Mentalist" and "Unforgettable" would probably like you to believe that.

NITPICK POINT: Nancy Drew and her father take the train to L.A., since they live in a part of the U.S. where they can't get to an airport.  And where exactly would that be?

NITPICK POINT #2: The main character is portrayed as an overachiever, and her dad asks her to settle in to her new school and act like a normal teen.  But we sure don't see a lot of her attending school after that.  There's a couple scenes at school, and after that she's bouncing around L.A. solving a mystery.

NITPICK POINT #3: In one scene, someone leaves a bomb in our heroine's car.  But they leave it in the back seat of a convertible, with no attempt to hide it.  How effective was that supposed to be?  Wouldn't it have been better to hide the bomb?  Geez, anyone who's seen a spy movie knows that...

Also starring Tate Donovan (last seen in "Good Night and Good Luck"), Josh Flitter (last seen in "License to Wed"), Marshall Bell, Rachael Leigh Cook, Barry Bostwick, with cameos from Bruce Willis (last seen in "The Jackal"), Adam Goldberg (last seen in "Deja Vu"), Chris Kattan.

RATING: 4 out of 10 penny loafers

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Return to Oz

Year 4, Day 85 - 3/25/12 - Movie #1,084

BEFORE: Speaking of sequels, why did it take Hollywood so long, about 45 years, to film a follow-up to "The Wizard of Oz", one of the most popular films of all time?  Seems like that would be a no-brainer.  I think part of that had to do with the source material - L. Frank Baum wrote a bunch of Oz books, but most of them didn't live up to the original.  I remember reading the 2nd book, "The Land of Oz", as a kid and being somewhat disappointed.

Linking from "Neverwhere", Gary Bakewell was also in "Backbeat" with Stephen Dorff, who was also in a film called "Deuces Wild" with Fairuza Balk.   I also got lucky thematically, since a character in "Neverwhere" referenced "The Wizard of Oz" indirectly, saying that if they completed their quest in the London Underground, they'd get a new heart and brain from the Wizard...

THE PLOT: Dorothy, saved from a psychiatric experiment by a mysterious girl, is somehow called back to Oz when a vain witch and the Nome King destroy everything that makes the magical land beautiful.

AFTER: Turns out this film borrows from two different Oz books, "The Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz", 2nd and 3rd in the series of 40 (!!) books.   I read "The Land of Oz", which introduces the characters of Jack Pumpkinhead and the witch named Mombi.  But the lead character in that book is a boy named Tip, not Dorothy.  Which was probably a big drawback when trying to appeal to fans of the 1939 film, I'll bet.  So they brought in pieces from the third book, which does feature Dorothy, as well as the Nome King, Tik-Tok, and Billina the chicken.

But does the resulting patchwork function as a proper film?  I suppose so, but it had the same air of randomness to it that plagued Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland".  It seemed like a record of successive, yet disconnected events - a bunch of WHATS without much of a WHY.  Why give Mombi the power to change her head, what larger purpose does this serve in the plot?  What does the Nome King gain by turning people into pieces of furniture?

Even taking a step back - what lesson does Dorothy learn in her second trip to Oz?  What was the moral, the point?  None that I could see.  And we still never learn if she actually went to this land, or if it's all her fantasy or delusion.  Maybe some electro-shock therapy was just what she needed, but now we'll never know, will we?

Also starring Nicol Williamson (last seen in "Robin and Marian"), Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie (last seen in "The Crossing Guard").

RATING: 3 out of 10 yellow bricks