Postcard Observations - 1999/2000
Louise and I went to see The Mummy today...pretty entertaining, if you don't demand too rigorous an internal logic. Some very nice effects, and some good humorous scenes.
The Phantom Menace
Louise and I went to see the new Star Wars film the other day. Neither of us could understand more than one word in five most of the movie, so it's hard to give it a proper review. It seem to lack the humor of the original, and you don't really see enough of the bad-guy to feel very strongly about him one way or the other. The showdown scene at the end was very well choreographed, somewhat reminiscent of the better Hong Kong martial arts films. All in all, I have to give it a rating of lukewarm to tepid.
Steve and I saw The Phantom Menace on Friday night...we liked it well enough, though we didn't love it. I didn't expect much from it because Lucas took so long to put it out, with so many setbacks, so I wasn't disappointed. The movie had his distinctive directing style, I thought, with lots of cutting between action scenes. Not to mention all the critters, many of which I thought were superfluous but seemed to be Lucas' way of saying "Looky what we can do." Return of the Jedi was the same, I thought, but in this one I found Jar Jar to be annoying (did you hear Letterman's comment on never going to a movie with a character named "Jar Jar" in it?).
You were right about the final lightsaber battle - incredible! And the two-bladed lightsaber was very cool. I read that Darth Maul was played by a martial arts expert.
I was pleasantly surprised by Ewan McGregor's Obi Wan Kenobi...he sounded so arrogant in his interviews I expected a total reversal in character, but Lucas was right - he both sounded and looked somewhat like Alec Guiness.
I found the presence of C3P0 and R2D2 rather far-fetched...a refrigerator doesn't last ten years nowadays; are we to expect the droids to last 30 or more? The pod racing scene was too long and the little kid was a cute but lousy actor. I found the messianic angle they built around him to be a waste. All in all, though, I thought it was a faithful rendering, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if the momentum had not been broken by a fifteen-year hiatus. It felt really surreal to be sitting in the theater and seeing the words come up, "A long time ago, etc."
A Midsummer Night's Dream
[Steve and I] saw A Midsummer Night's Dream yesterday, and I have to say I was disappointed. The critics had panned it, but we didn't let that stop us from seeing it - after all, it is the Bard; how bad could it be? But most of the actors butchered the lines, particularly the three happy couples, in addition to playing this wonderful comedy somberly and in a definite low key. Also, for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom, they changed the setting of the play to 19th Century Italy (but still had the players refer to each other as "Athenians," etc.), played opera music in the background - loudly - and had the principals riding around on bicycles. There were a couple of vaguely funny moments, primarily from Nick Bottom and his pals, but I admit that it was a far cry from the madcap, lighthearted live version I had seen played with such wild abandon the summer before last in Central Park.
The General's Daughter
Louise and I went to see The General's Daughter a couple of weeks ago, which stars that Scientology shill from Saturday Night Fever. Actually, the movie was quite good, although the premise driving the plot was pretty nasty. Travolta plays an army investigator with a wild streak, and has a lot of fun with the part. The movie ends with one of those "just-deserts" overprints on the screen, like they used to have on the old FBI and Dragnet shows, implying that the events of the movie were based on a true story (which I don't think is the case, here). Anyway, it is worth seeing.
The Wild Wild West
We . . . screened The Wild Wild West yesterday, which we thought was a lot better than the reviews would seem to indicate. Kenneth Brannagh plays the legless villain, Dr Loveless, and is immensely entertaining in the part. The photography effects needed to make Brannagh appear as though he had no legs were absolutely seamless. Will Smith, who plays James West, exchanges a number of hilarious and extremely non-PC, not-so-veiled pun insults with Brannagh . . . Loveless does black jokes, while West does amputee jokes. I'm not sure what the professional critics expected from a movie like this; I'd say ignore them and see it anyway.
We like Anthony Hopkins, so Steve and I went to see him in Instinct last week - thank goodness we waited 'til it went into the cheap theater! It was sort of movie that made you say "Wha...??" at the end. Our nephew Kyle was dying to see it...he tried to get in, but they turned him away at the door since it was an R-rated film. He was expecting another Silence of the Lambs, which is how the advertising made it appear. He hinted around for Steve and me to take him, and frankly we could have - very little strong language, no blood and guts, no nudity. It was more like a watered-down remake of Gorillas in the Mist.
The animation in Tarzan was incredible...Disney's outdone themselves this time. The story line was about as PC and Bambi as you might expect, especially by comparison to Burroughs' original, but it wouldn't have made much of a kids' film if they had followed the author's original bloody plot line. The character's were from the basic Disney stock, but it was very entertaining, all-in-all. Minnie Driver from Good Will Hunting did Jane's voice, and she was perfect for it. Hearing Brian Blessed (from all of Brannagh's Shakespeare films; he was also Augustus in I Claudius) do the bad guy's voice was pretty amusing as well.
Arlington Road is a Hitchkock-type thriller about a teacher (Jeff Bridges) who suspects his next door neighbor is a terrorist. The film maintained a pretty good tension throughout, and I always felt Jeff Bridges was extremely underrated as an actor. The ending, however, was kind of a cheat; they went for shock value, but when you started thinking about things that went on earlier in the film, you saw how unlikely the ending was.
The Sixth Sense
On Saturday night, Steve and I went to see The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis. We had derisively been calling it "the whisper movie," because the actors never seemed to be speaking in full voice in any of the trailers we saw for the film. We were assured by so many folks, however, that this was one of those cases of poor advertising and that it really is a very good movie that we decided to risk it, and we were very glad we did. Normally I don't care for Willis (finding him arrogant as a person and over-the-top as an actor), but he did very well in this tale of a troubled child psychologist seeking to redeem an earlier failure by helping a disturbed boy with a similar disorder. People warned us that there was an unexpected twist at the end, and both Steve and I were impressed - we're always impressed by movies that manage to surprise us (particularly without trickery), and neither of us had seen it (the conclusion) coming in this case.
I enjoyed your comments about The Sixth Sense; Louise and I went to see it the weekend before last, and felt exactly the same way about it. I had the feeling afterward that I should have anticipated the ending, that all the clues were there and there were no tricks or inconsistancies, but I did not. Which made it just about perfect.
The 13th Warrior
We . . . went to see The 13th Warrior this last weekend, which is an adaptation of Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. Louise and I both read this book years before we ever met, and liked it quite a bit. A few years ago we read it again, when they started advertising the film, which was then named after the novel. Since then it has gone through several rewrites, a name change, and quite a few reshootings - none of which are ever good signs. All-in-all, this did not give us much hope for the film, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was quite enjoyable.
The story is set in the 10th century AD, and is told by an Arab traveler named Ahmed ibn-Fadlan (played by Antonio Banderas), who is sent north as an ambassador to the Norsemen. The Norse had begun raiding down the Don and Volga rivers since the ninth century, and had founded several cities in what is now Russia and the Ukraine. Ibn-Fadlan travels (involuntarily) to Scandanavia with a band of Norsemen, who are sent on a mission to rescue a kingdom from the mysterious and terrifying wendols - "The Eaters of the Dead." The plot pretty closely parallels the Beowulf legend, and this is by design. Crichton gives his reasons for this in an appendix to the later editions of the novel. Although the story seems to promise fantasy, it is completely an historical fiction.
Crichton has a not-undeserved reputation for what I like to call "picket-fence" characters - ie, characters that are so two-dimensional that they could run through a picket fence without slowing down. While both film and book feature their share of picket-fence characters, there were also some core characters (like ibn-Fadlan and his Norse friend Herger) who were quite interesting, and whom I liked quite a bit. The photography was gorgeous, and the story was interesting, well told, and well acted. There was one really ridiculous element, when ibn-Fadlan puts a broadsword on a grinding wheel and pares it down to the shape of a scimitar. All this would accomplish would be to weaken the sword and take all of the temper out of the metal. Aside from this one point, the film seemed quite accurate in all of its historical trappings, and was well worth watching.
The Bone Collector
Good acting by Denzel Washington, but this is a film I've seen about a hundred times before. Mad serial killer comes up with progressively more inventive and horrible ways of killing his victims, leaves clues for the police, sparking a duel with the brilliant investigator, who eventually defeats the killer after a dramatic confrontation. There were some inventive twists in the details of the main character, but everyone else was pretty much stock, as was the plot.
End of Days
It was nice to see ol' Arnie on the screen again, but this movie was pretty sad, and I wouldn't even have mentioned it if a phone conversation with Jenn hadn't brought it back to mind. This is standard occult Armageddon fare, complete with garbled interpretations from Revelations. At one point, a priest explains that the far-famed Number of the Beast was actually dreamed upside down and backwards, and that 666 was actually 999 - put a "1" in front of it, and you've got 1999, the year of the Antichrist (apparently, Saint John the Divine also dreamed in modern numerical notation). The actor who played the priest seemed pained to be handed such garbage to parrot, as well he might, as he seemed a pretty competent performer otherwise.
The film became actively hilarious as the plot unfolded: a young woman was consecrated at birth to become the bride of the Antichrist at the proper time. If the villain manages to impregnate her before the end of 1999, the world ends. The good guys are in a race against time to prevent this unholy ravishment, and it gets pretty ludicrous when Arnie is still trying to defend the woman's virtue with 30 seconds left on the clock. You'd think the Prince of Sin would have more staying power than that. "No wonder the devil's so surly," I told Jenn. "God must've really cursed Satan where it hurts when he kicked him out!" In the patient tone of an adult explaining the obvious to a child, Jenn said, "Well, that's what being 'fallen' means, Tim." Thanks for explaining that to me, sis.
Louise and I went to see GalaxyQuest at the Villa Linda Mall a couple of weeks ago, and it was a riot. Tim Allen, Allen Rickman, and Sigourney Weaver play out-of-work actors from an immensely popular science fiction TV show, who make a career of convention appearances (sound familiar?). They are enlisted by a group of literal-minded aliens who believe the show is an historical documentary. Tim Allen had Shatner's ego and
mannerisms down pat. Allen Rickman's GQ persona was a take-off of Spock, although the actor he played had a general attitude more in line with James Doohan's than Leonard Nimoy's. Sigourney Weaver had Nichelle Nichol's role, although a bit of Ripley came popping out from time to time (and speaking of "popping out", wardrobe enhanced her "upper body development" quite a bit for this film). The fans were the fans...what can you say? Anyway, it's worth the ticket price.
Louise and I went to see this in the theatre last Sunday, and we both loved it. The reconstruction of the Coliseum was first rate, closely matching a theoretical reconstruction I saw on a PBS special a couple of years ago. In general, the attention to detail was extraordinary: armor and weapons, formations and tactics, etc. My one gripe was a detail of the initial battle scene. Roman soldiers carried two javelins into battle, and typically hurled them as they closed with the enemy. While the javelins were shown, and closely matched the actual weapons used by the legions in that era, they were not thrown in the battle. That's a relatively minor gripe, however. One anachronism we noticed was that the horsemen used stirrups, which wouldn't make it into the west for another 500 years or so.
The historical setting is by and large accurate, although the details are considerably fudged. Marcus Aurelius was a man dedicated to the welfare of the people he ruled. He died of old age while prosecuting a by-and-large successful campaign in Germany. He was succeeded as
Emperor by his cruel and foolish son Commodus. That much of the film is true. The historical Commodus was also an expert gladiator and archer, and would often fight with both men and wild animals. While the film accurately portrays his character, his proficiency with weapons was given only a nod. Lucilla, Commodus' sister in the film, was actually his aunt. The historical Commodus was eventually poisoned by his mistress and, when the poison failed to work quickly enough, strangled by the athlete he kept about for wrestling practice. There is no historical analogue for Maximus (the lead character).
All of the acting, from the lead figures to the minor characters, was very well done. The attitudes of the characters were faithful to the times, refreshingly free of the contemporary political correctness that is usually grafted on to the hero's viewpoint in films about other times
and places. The general attitude about Rome and the Empire was positive (though not without criticism in some aspects), again a trait usually lacking in films about Rome. All in all, I think you and Steve ought to check this one out.
On Monday afternoon we went to see Mission: Impossible II. It was fairly predictable, but good fun, I thought. The story was much less complex than the first, and it was less of an ensemble cast: this was Cruise's movie all the way, and they weren't making any bones about it this time. I'm told he did all his own stunts - must've been sore for weeks! I tell people they'll enjoy this movie more if they don't pay full price to see it and don't expect too much or take it too seriously.
Went to see the new Fantasia last Sunday...not quite up to the calibre of the original, we thought, and a lot shorter (less than 2 hrs). Also, they sort of overdid things with the celebrity introductions. It was still well worth the ticket price. There was some interesting backround
material on the original Fantasia given. The programme opened with the 1st movement of Beethoven's 5th symphony, the animation formatted along the lines of the Bach "Tocatta and Fugue" that started the original. There was a piece with flamingos playing with a yo-yo that was pretty hilarious, but my favorite segment was the adaptation of Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite" that closed the programme.
Last Sunday Steve and I caught a matinee of "The Patriot." Steve loved it (big Mel Gibson fan), and I liked it a lot, too. It was not so sweeping as "Braveheart," and in plot it was rather predictable, but overall it was a touching, inspiring story with some fine acting and direction.
Steve and I went hiking yesterday, then got home, changed, went to the Olive Garden and then the movies. We went to see "Chicken Run" - excellent! I wouldn't have been interested, but Steve talked me into it - when he was in college he saw a couple of shorts by the creator called "Wallace and Gromit." Steve said they were even funnier than "Chicken Run," which I found to be hysterical.
What Lies Beneath
We gave some thought to seeing Chicken Run, but passed. Been hearing good things about it, though. We did go to see "What Lies Beneath" with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. The film maintained good tension without overdoing things, seeming to teeter between being a psych thriller and a ghost story - it was, of course, a ghost story, the TV previews having given that away long since. It's flaws included one cheap red-herring, and one somewhat unconvincing personality change.