Sunday, June 24, 2012


Typically, when I see a movie, I jot down some thoughts and will probably blog it within a few days.  Unless I'm being lazy, which has been known to happen from time to time.  With Prometheus, though, I had a different problem.  I just wasn't sure how I felt about it.  So, I pondered and pondered, making sure to stay off the interwebs and work it out in my noggin.  The more I thought about Ridley Scott's kinda-sorta-not-really prequel to Alien, though, the more I realized that my take on the movie didn't fit my traditional review format.  So, first up is this review.  My next post will be "Prometheus: What the Hell Was That?" and I will try to explain what confused me so much about this film.

Prometheus is, at its core, the story of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), and their quest for answers.  Shaw and Holloway are romantically-entwined archaeologists, and they have found the same star constellation in the primitive artwork of several ancient civilizations, separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles. 
"Is that...somebody playing jai-alai?"
That wouldn't be a big deal if the constellation was the Big Dipper, but this particular constellation is not visible with the naked eye.  In fact, human technology had to expand to an advanced degree before discovering it.  That fact, coupled with the inexplicable coincidence of societies that had no contact sharing the same image in their artwork, leads them to conclude that the constellation is a map.  A map to where, you may ask?  A map to a planet where humanity's predecessors (dubbed "Engineers" by Shaw and Holloway) came from --- humanity's cradle, if you will.  Their theory intrigues the aging corporate magnate Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and he funds a space voyage (on the ship Prometheus) to investigate the planet.  Once the crew arrives, however, they find a barren world with only one empty base.  Well, maybe not exactly "empty."
Giant statue head with made-to-scale aspirin tablet statues
They also find a corpse of what they presume to be an Engineer.  But what could wipe out the Engineers?  Why did they come to Earth in the first place?  Can we still find out where humanity came from?  The last two questions, while good, are not nearly as important as the first. 
That looks vaguely familiar, doesn't it?
When you consider that question, the natural follow-up is this: how likely is the survival of a group who doesn't know what they are up against?  Hint: not very.  With every passing minute on this planet, it feels less and less like the cradle of humanity and more like a tomb.

Now, if you've seen the film and are wondering where all the buff Powder clones are, that's what I'm going to get into with "Prometheus: What the Hell Was That?"

While my synopsis may not indicate it, there are actually more than a couple of actors in Prometheus.  Noomi Rapace was good as the innocent who has to get tough, but she wasn't great.  I wanted to like her character more, but wound up being distracted by some other plot elements instead.  I will say that she conveyed pain and fear better than anyone else in the cast, at the very least.  Oh, and if you have any fears about pregnancy, she's in a scene that you may not want to watch.  Ever.
Logan Marshall-Green was a lot less sympathetic.  He did a fine job playing an overconfident prick, but I think that his character was intended for more, given the amount of quality screen time he had.  I did like Idris Elba as the captain of the Prometheus.  It was odd seeing a captain play such a passive role in a sci-fi flick, but I enjoyed his laid-back approach.  I would have liked to see more of his character, but he did a good job with what he had and his choices at the end of the film didn't feel completely out of left field.
The rest of his core crew --- Benedict Wong, Emun Elliott, and a few others --- were inconsequential to the overall acting quality of the film.  The character design for Sean Harris was a bit unusual for a geologist.  I expected him to be a guard or something, but he was a scientist.  So...there's that.
Sometimes, even smart people get tattoos on their head
Rafe Spall's character was similarly odd.  He plays a biologist who shows zero interest in a dead alien and later acts like a complete jackass when encountering a new species.  Worst.  Biologist.  Ever.  I wasn't a big fan of either of those two.  Charlize Theron played a cold, calculating bitch in the background of scenes; I don't think Theron did a bad job acting here (her reaction post-flamethrower was pretty good), but her character felt like a waste of space to me, another bit of misdirection in a film jam-packed with it.  I have no idea why Guy Pearce was cast to play the elderly Peter Weyland; Pearce was fine and his makeup was good, but why cast a young man as an older man if you're not going to show him as a youth?  And, no, I don't count viral marketing as a good enough reason.  Maybe this means that Pearce will be showing up in a planned seuqel/prequel to Prometheus?  Whatever, it's not too important.  Similarly, I was surprised to see Patrick Wilson playing the incredibly bit part of Shaw's father in her dreams.  The most impressive actor in Prometheus, though, was definitely Michael Fassbender.  His work as the android David was fantastic.
Dare I say..."Fasstastic"?  No, probably not.
It takes a lot to play a character supposedly devoid of emotion and make him absolutely mesmerizing in every scene, but Fassbender accomplished it.  He was cold, manipulative and sneaky, but he didn't remind me of the other android characters from the Alien series; his character felt very unique.  He also had a viral ad that was pretty good, but it doesn't even hint at how much fun he was to watch as a quasi-villain.

The first thing I think of when I ponder Ridley Scott's direction in Prometheus is how incredibly gorgeous the movie looks.  The cinematography is sometimes breathtaking, the sets are impressive in both size and style, and the details of the Prometheus ship technology and the Engineer base are well beyond cool.  The imaginative visuals in this movie make it one of the most visually astounding science fiction films I have ever seen.
I'm not always an IMAX guy, but this looked amazing in IMAX
Scott obviously had a pretty good relationship with Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, as they turned in good performances, but I was a little disappointed in the rest of the supporting cast.  There are a lot of characters in this film that make important decisions, but I felt that Scott made them seem more important to the overall story than they were, which made them feel overvalued and underdeveloped. 
Example number one
I wouldn't have minded that so terribly if the film wasn't so packed with subtext.  Prometheus is a dense movie that does not stop to explain itself to the likes of you, the audience, or hint at what details are going to be important later.  On the one hand, I respect that choice; more often than not, films err on the side of over-explaining themselves.  Prometheus, though, is absolutely unapologetically confusing.  Scott definitely gives enough hints to read into his intentions, but the fact that I feel compelled to write another blog post about those intentions should indicate that his storytelling is not as taut or clear as it could have been.

That's really the problem with Prometheus.  It has one truly impressive performance (Fassbender) and a good secondary performance (Rapace), a wonderfully developed universe, and an ambitious concept (humans seeking their makers).  What it doesn't have is good storytelling.  There are a few reveals in this film, but they are predictable and dull.  And then there is a twist, which is astounding because it appears to have no motivation.  For the first two-thirds of Prometheus, it is a slow-boiling sci-fi thriller with somewhat pretentious themes, and it looks like it's going to be great.  And then it suddenly becomes a horror movie, complete with psycho killers and monsters.  That just felt cheap to me.  I also didn't appreciate the bushels of questions (that is the proper term of measurement for questions, by the way) I was left with when the film finished.  Granted, it did get me to ponder the film for an entire week after seeing it --- which is quite a feat --- but I was left unsatisfied.  Prometheus is absolutely gorgeous and ambitious, it handles the creation of mankind so well that the existence of an alien Engineer race doesn't preclude the existence of God, and it is very, very impressive.  It is also purposefully obtuse and frustrating.  As much as I wanted to be blown away by this movie, the story and the unexplained subtext disappointed me.  Still, it is certainly worth seeing, if only for the spectacle and Fassbender.

By the by, I wanted to call out as the source for all the cool pics I included in this post.  I don't know who's in charge of that site, but they are definitely the web's singular resource for all things --- pics, details, theories, whatever --- Prometheus.  And they appear to be pretty bright; after I jotted down my interpretations of what happened in this movie in my follow-up post, I went back to compare my take with theirs and I learned a few things.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


What a brilliant concept.  Even if Aliens had not been made in 1986, seven years after Alien, we would have had a sequel made at one point or another.  Following up on Ridley Scott's brilliant sci-fi/horror masterpiece was inevitable.  You have a unique universe, filled with fantastic-looking monsters, and the original was received well; of course a sequel had to be made.  What makes James Cameron's take so smart is that he opted to make a film entirely different from the original.  Why make a pale imitation when you can carve your own path, right?

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survived the destruction of her ship, the Nostromo, but it took almost sixty years for anyone to find her escape pod.  When she awakes from her space sleep/hibernation, she learns that nobody believes her story about the alien that killed her crew; with the Nostromo destroyed, she has no physical evidence, and the higher-ups in the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (AKA "The Company" from the first film) imply that they believe she is making up her story as a defense for blowing up one of their expensive ships.  Why would Ripley even need physical evidence?  Because the species she encountered has never been observed by humans --- at least, none who survived.  In fact, the planet where Ripley's team found the alien is now a terraformed colony, and none of the colonists have ever encountered such a creature.  Naturally, not being believed doesn't make Ripley very cheery.  When you combine that with the fact that she has now outlived all her loved ones, including her child, you get some serious Captain America-style angst.
On the bright side, she gets to work with mechanical crab-hands
Shortly, Ripley gets a visit from Burke (Paul Reiser), a slimy Company bureaucrat, and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn).  Apparently, the entire space colony on the planet where Ripley found the alien has stopped communicating.  The Company's solution to the problem is, smartly, not to send an exploration team.  Instead, they are sending in Colonial Marines to kill anything that looks even slightly funny on that planet. 
It's called "The Carrot Top Defense"
Burke and Hicks want Ripley along as a consultant.  If the colony's problem is another alien like the one Ripley encountered --- which is a long shot, at best --- she might be able to offer some in-the-moment insight.  She won't be fighting, she won't see the creature, she will just sit on the ship and observe.  Yeah.  Right.  As the title states, this is not about a singular alien; this is about alienS, and they are very plural in this colony.

As I mentioned before, there is a huge shift in tone from Alien to Aliens.  Instead of trying to recreate the suspense of the original film, director James Cameron made a bad-ass action movie.  Sure, one alien is scary if you have no weapons, but how about a hundred aliens against a metric ton of guns?  That choice makes Aliens a lot less scary than Alien, but it is also a hell of a lot more fun to watch.  If there is one thing that James Cameron has always had a handle on, it is how to portray spectacle on the big screen.  An entire colony filled with alien xenomorphs is so over the top when compared to the quiet desperation of the first film that it cannot be described as anything but a spectacle.  Well, I suppose you can also describe it as "totally awesome," too.
Suck it, Rambo

This time around, it is clear from the start that Ripley is the main character, so Sigourney Weaver's acting becomes more crucial.  I'm not the biggest fan of Weaver, but she gives an otherwise emotion-free script some humanity.  It's also nice to see her character evolve some of the traits shown briefly in the original film; when she takes command, the marines listen because she's saying sensible things with authority.  That couldn't have happened before this story, but it still makes sense within the character's progression.  I have to admit that I really enjoyed Paul Reiser's slimeball company man role.  I've never found Reiser particularly funny, so having a reason to dislike him was very cathartic for me.  It helps that he does a great job playing a despicable character.
Even in the future, the "popped collar" is a sign of douchiness
Leading the rest of the supporting cast is Michael Biehn as the likable marine and quasi-love interest for Ripley.  I've always liked Biehn, and seeing him as the calming influence in Aliens provided an interesting contrast to his "come with me if you want to live"-intensity in his other noteworthy roles.  I also have to admit that, while it certainly isn't subtle, I always smile when Hicks falls asleep on the drop from orbit.  Perhaps the biggest division I have seen amongst fans of this film is whether or not Bill Paxton is awesome here.  I definitely fall on the "hell, yes" side of the argument, but I see where the other side is coming from; Paxton's character speaks in cliches --- almost like an action figure come to life --- and his performance is so ridiculous that I'm pretty sure he delivered his lines IN ALL CAPS.  And his "badass" speech?  He could have described the marines as being "bushels of badasses" and it wouldn't have been any sillier than what he actually said.  But then, isn't that what makes his character's whimpering so entertaining?  He's a tough guy that ignores Ripley's advice and gets the ever-loving shit scared out of him.  Subtle?  Not exactly.  But it's damn entertaining work from an actor I typically dislike.
Game over, man!  Game over!
The only other cast members I cared about, one way or another, were Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston, and Lance Henriksen.  Henriksen was solid as a detached android, and it was nice to see that his character was substantially different than the android in Alien.  Goldstein and Rolston were even more action-figurey than Paxton --- I would argue that their acting and dialogue puts them on par with the cast of Predator --- but, like Paxton, their incredibly macho attitudes were pretty entertaining to watch.  Side note: I just realized that Jenette Goldstein also play the foster mother of John Connor in Terminator 2.  Too bad she didn't have the T-1000's abilities in this movie.
"You're just too bad, Vasquez"

James Cameron's style lends itself well to big-budget action movies, especially ones that don't spend a lot of time with emotions or thoughtfulness.  Yes, there is a little bit of commentary of corporate greed here, and I love that Paul Reiser was essentially more evil than the xenomorphs, but Aliens is definitely a movie that is best enjoyed by turning off your brain and just enjoying the show.  Some of the production values have aged poorly in the past twenty-six years (pretty much anything on the surface of the planet), but this movie still looks pretty great on the whole.  As much as I think that the majority of the acting in this movie is ridiculously over-the-top, I have to admit that it fits the characters and works well within the framework of this story.
Where are all the quips now, tough guy?
The mere fact that Cameron took the concept of the first film, completely changed the tone and situation, and still managed to make it cool speaks volumes for his vision as a director.  He may not be even close to a favorite, but he can make some fantastically entertaining stuff with the right concepts.
Cameron math: More, bigger monsters > one monster

The most amazing thing about Aliens, to me, is that it works.  As much as I enjoy the original film, I cannot deny how much fun this one is.  In fact, until I sat down to watch both back-to-back, Aliens had been my favorite entry in the series for years.  It's got cool monsters, a few minor scares, and a whole bunch of can-do action movie goodness --- what's not to like?  Well, aside from having to go fetch the little girl at the end because she's a plot device.  And the fact that Bill Paxton's character pulls the "I'm ___ days away from retirement" bit.  And this is the second movie in a row that has a surprise fourth act.  And nobody kills Paul Reiser.  Despite all of that, though, Aliens is a ton of fun to watch and still stands up there with Star Wars as one of the most enjoyable action/sci-fi movies ever made.
Enjoyable for most people, that is

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


There is never a bad reason to revisit the Alien franchise.  I've seen them all, every single Alien (the original, -s, -³, Resurrection, vs. Predator and vP: Requiem) and almost all of them are worth seeing, even if they're utter crap.  For whatever reason, as I waited to for a suitable time to go see Prometheus, I realized I hadn't watched the first two movies in almost a decade.  I can honestly do without the rest of the series (although AvP:R was pretty amusing), but those two are examples of greatness that do not often come along in science fiction.
Like curly hair and over-the-head headsets

I doubt I have anything too original to add to the chorus of positive reviews for Alien.  That won't stop me from reviewing it, but it does make outlining the plot in detail seem a bit unnecessary.  In short, some glorified intergalactic truckers on the spaceship Nostromo are forced (economically, not physically) to investigate a distress signal deep in Nebraska (AKA "middle-of-nowhere") space.  The signal comes from an alien vessel, and the aliens that sent it are long dead.  However, in the process of determining that fact, the crew of the Nostromo also accidentally encounter the creatures that killed off the aliens.  Worse, they bring one onto the ship with them and continue their voyage home.  Hence the tagline, "In space, no one an hear you scream."
"...Unless you have radios in your space suits, that is"

There's quite a bit more to it that just that, but explaining science fiction plots typically leads me to over-explaining them because I tend to find the little details in these movies fascinating.  And for people who enjoy reading into the production values of sci-fi movies, Alien is a treat.  Unlike just about every space flick before this one (Star Wars may be the earliest example I can think of for this), the spaceship and crew are not flawlessly clean; this is a universe where space travel has been around for a while, and there are spaceship equivalents of rust buckets.  This isn't a film that relies on special effects or fancy production values to succeed, but the unspoken history that the production design implies --- for the ship, for the spacesuits, for the alien species and crashed ship, etc. --- is very cool. 
Implication of the crew's appearance: fashion peaked in 1979

The acting in Alien is quite good for something that, on paper, amounts to a genre mish-mash.  I didn't realize it until I started browsing through their filmographies, but most of the cast in this film was fairly unknown at the time of its release; while many of the actors had been working for ten or fifteen years, they primarily played small character roles.  That means that the highest-profile actor in Alien is John Hurt, who received some award nominations the year before for his work in The Midnight Express.  As far as his performance goes, it was fine until it was rudely interrupted by his impending death.
Less erotic than it looks
Isn't that cool, though?  It's not something that a modern audience would think twice about, what with Sigourney Weaver starring in three other Alien pics, but having Hurt play the first victim is on par with Janet Leigh's surprise death in Psycho or Drew Barrymore's in Scream; you just don't expect the most well-known actor in the film to exit that early.  Thankfully, the non-Hurt cast is pretty respectable, so you don't really miss Hurt's gravelly voice too much as you're being sucked into this movie.  Obviously, Weaver is the star; she does a very good job here, assuming the lead as she makes smart and hard decisions and takes control when she has to.  This was her first major role, and she was pretty bad-ass for a lady with awful hair.  Tom Skerritt was definitely the second most likable and logical character in the film; Skerritt has never really wowed me as an actor, but he has always played authority figures well, even before he started going gray.  Yaphet Kotto, who I generally like, starts out the film utterly annoying, but he more than redeems himself by the end, playing up his fear and machismo as much as his small role would allow.  Harry Dean Stanton was Kotto's partner in crime, and he gave a typical Stanton performance.  He wasn't outstanding, but he always adds a bit of world-weariness to any role he's given.  Probably the best supporting character, though, was played by Ian Holm.  Already a veteran British Shakespearean actor by this point, Holm had yet to make much of an impression in an American film.  What I like about his performance is that it is subtle...until it suddenly isn't.
Tapioca and marbles: not key elements in "subtle"
Then he gets honest-to-goodness action scenes and a pretty fantastic special effects scene.  His character's reveal is a shock the first time you view it (unless you're familiar with the sequels, I suppose), and I really liked how his character acquiesced to certain things early on, but was still such a sinister company man at heart.  The only actor I didn't really care for was Veronica Cartwright, who more or less represented what Scott hoped the audience was feeling.  In other words, she whimpered and yelped a lot.

While I do like the acting in Alien, this is definitely not a film that relies heavily on a power performance.  This is a mood piece, more than anything else.  This was only the second film to be directed by Ridley Scott, but his direction is what makes this film so fantastic.  If Alien was simply a science fiction film, we would still be talking about Ridley Scott's team pre-production team.  I loved the look and feel of the ship, I liked the alien planet, and the futuristic tech on display (mostly in the form of the android) was very cool.  Of course, the best part of the production was the design of the xenomorph (AKA the titular alien).  How awesome is this thing?
It looks like a shark-person made with the sexy time to some demon scorpion and then covered their love-spawn in Nickelodeon Gak.  This alien is one of the most visually impressive creatures to ever hit the big screen, and that's even before seeing it in action.  When you combine the fantastic production with practical effects --- as good as it looks, most of the special effects are made with puppets and creativity --- this movie becomes something more.  It moves from "cool idea" to "cool movie," and that's still disregarding what actually happens in the film.  With Scott's talent for building suspense, you wind up with something truly special.  And when I reference the suspense in this film, I'm not talking about "Don't go into the basement, dumbass!"  I'm not even talking about "Wait for it...wait for it...wait for it...oh, it's only the cat ---- KNIFE IN THE FACE!"  I'm talking about a pervasive sense of dread that few horror films come close to matching.  Scott slowly reveals more and more about the alien menace, but still keeps the audiences off-guard.  The alien changes its appearance and the way it attacks throughout the film, so you're never quite sure what to expect.
Except death.  You always expect death
One of the things that I like best about Alien, though, is the immorality of The Corporation.  It's one thing to make a monster movie, but adding duplicity and cutthroat capitalism changes the threat from a simple (although dangerous) external one, to a two-front war, where the characters have to watch their backs, too.  Most movies would be happy to have just one of these layers, which is another reason Alien is such an interesting watch.

This is only the second or third time I have sat down to watch Alien, and it impresses me more and more each time.  I love when films transcend their genres, so the way Alien combines awesome sci-fi with horror just blows me away.  When watching movies with my friends, we often skip over this film in favor of the louder and more action-packed Aliens, but Ridley Scott's direction has won me over.  I am finally convinced that this is the best Alien movie.  Everything about it, from the slow reveal of the title in the opening credits to the genuinely shocking chest-burst scene, all the way to the fourth act scares is wonderful.
What a rip-off!  They did the same thing in Spaceballs!
I don't even mind the stupidity of the characters risking their lives for a cat or the fact that the iconic egg image on the movie poster doesn't resemble the actual eggs in the film very much.  This is a complex story with good, old-fashioned special effects and a slow-burning story that effectively amps up the terror in the plot.  And that's all it's about.  There are no distractions --- how many other filmmakers would have horned in a romantic subplot here? --- because this is all about dread and terror, and Alien does what it does so very, very well.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Adventures of Robin Hood

I had never seen an Errol Flynn movie before sitting down to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood.  It's not all that surprising, I suppose; swashbuckling movies have been out of style for decades, and the rest of Flynn's body of work consists mostly of action-adventure movies in a period where I prefer moody noirs.  Honestly, I can't think of an instance where someone has even recommended an Errol Flynn movie to me; it is entirely possible that my knowledge of Flynn comes from references made by Nightcrawler in X-Men comic books.  Still, a legend is a legend, and I thought it was past time I gave Mr. Flynn a chance.

I think we all know the basic story in The Adventures of Robin Hood by now.  The rightful king of England, Richard the Lionheart, is kidnapped by another country as he attempted to return home from the Crusades.  Richard's slimy brother, John (Claude Rains), has been temporary ruler of the land for some time, and has enjoyed living a life of luxury while oppressing the Saxon lower classes.  When he hears of his brother's trouble abroad, John takes it upon himself to raise taxes to pay for Richard's ransom.
If this was a movie trailer, you would have heard a record scratch after I typed that
Just kidding!  John is allegedly raising the cash to save the crowd favorite king, but he is secretly plotting to use the money to legitimately crown himself king.  Won't anyone stand up to this mean, mean man?  Enter Robin, Earl of Locksley (Errol Flynn).  He takes it upon himself to denounce John (in John's own castle, to boot!) and promises to fight him at every opportunity.  I could go into more detail, but the rest of the film basically follows the same major plot points that the later remakes have.  Basically, Robin Hood becomes a thorn in John's side and Robin does his best to topple the would-be king.
And by "topple," I of course mean "impale"

Okay, so my first impression of The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn't that great.  It's certainly not bad, but it failed to impress me the same way that contemporary films like Pepe le Moko, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or even another epic like Gunga Din.  I have my suspicions as to why that is, but I'll wait a bit to explain.
Hint: it has nothing to do with silly hats

The acting in The Adventures of Robin Hood is okay for the time period, but not remarkable on the whole.  Errol Flynn is naturally who you picture when you think of this movie, but there is something about his performance that doesn't click with me.  Flynn's action scenes were pretty good for the time period and it appears that he did many of his own stunts, so I like him in those bits.  It's the abruptness of his performance elsewhere that just felt odd to me.  He would go from a feisty political rant to hands-on-his-hips-head-tilted-back laughter at a moment's notice.  I will admit that Flynn looks like he's having fun on-screen, but he comes across more as an egomaniacal jerk than a hero to me. 
"'Sup, bitches?!?"
Olivia de Havilland is fine as Maid Marian; she gives a lot of dreamy eyes to Robin Hood to convey her love --- which is by no means a bad method --- but I thought the attempts to make her more than a damsel in distress, while interesting, ultimately failed. Basil Rathbone was solid as Robin's chief enemy, the Sheriff of Nottingham Sir Guy of Gisbourne.  He didn't ham it up, but Rathbone did seethe dislike for his enemy well.  Claude Rains was suitably slimy as Prince John.  I spent most of the time he was onscreen staring, mouth-agape at his ridiculous wig and disgusting beard.
Great.  Now I've hurt his feelings.
Melville Cooper was pretty good as the Sheriff of Nottingham, although his character is a lot dumber and far less threatening than just about anyone else who's played the part.  As for Robin's Merry Men, Patric Knowles matched Flynn's hands-on-hips laughter, Alan Hale played a surprisingly regular-sized Little John, and the always vocally distinctive Eugene Pallette was probably my favorite underling as the ornery Friar Tuck.
"Why, you're in Technicolor, too!"

Two men get credit for directing The Adventures of Robin HoodWilliam Keighley was hired first, but was eventually replaced by Michael Curtiz when the producers were not impressed by the action scenes.  And yet, enough of both men's work made the final cut to justify co-director credits, which is odd.  I can definitely attest that some of Curtiz's action direction worked well; the sword fighting scenes in the castle are still a standard for sword fights in film.  Personally, I would have rather seen less fencing swordplay and more Princess Bride-style fighting, but it's still good, especially for the era.  I don't like that many action scenes are sped-up to look faster, but Flynn is clearly at his best in these sequences.
"You are using Bonetti's Defense against me, eh?"
It should also be pointed out that many of these scenes have become iconic; watching shadows fencing in the castle was a nice touch and Robin splitting an arrow to win the archery tournament is still classic.  The size of the production is also impressive.  The sets are enormous and there are tons and tons of extras, all wearing their gaudiest tights and hats.  The color in this film is surprisingly vivid, even by today's standards; I don't normally point out the novelty of color in films, but everything is gorgeous and bright, especially the outdoors scenes.

Everything about this movie screams "epic," for better or worse.  To go along with the huge scale, the acting performances are also very broad.  Here's the thing about the acting in The Adventures of Robin Hood: the supporting cast is playing to fit Errol Flynn's lead.  If you don't like how he delivers his lines or reacts to certain things, the supporting cast isn't going to impress you, because they are more or less props for Flynn to dash around.  This is not a subtle movie that wins you over through clever dialogue or interesting camera techniques.  This is a Hollywood blockbuster, dedicated to spectacle.  In that, it is successful.  But there are so many moments in The Adventures of Robin Hood that are not epic, and that is where this film stumbles.
Another mistake: introducing cat-style grooming to romances
Sure, I can agree that an arrow in the torso causes instant death, every time.  Yes, I am aware that Robin Hood is shown eating meat off the bone a comical amount of the time.  No, I don't care that the whole Normans and Saxons subplot is blown way out of proportion.  What I can't stand is that only villains are irritated by Robin Hood.  He rubs every single character he meets wrong at first, but eventually wins them over by being a complete dick and then laughing out loud.  And he's an attention whore!  When Richard finally reveals himself to John, it's definitely a King Moment; after maybe a second of time to react, Robin jumps in front of everybody and essentially screams "Look at me!!!"  Maybe my problem is that I never bought into Errol Flynn's performance enough and enjoyed the ride.  There are enough over-the-top quirks in this film that I can see being sources of joy for a true fan, the same way I enjoy the imperfections of many of my favorites.  Unfortunately, I was hoping for a classic and found the 1938 equivalent of a Summer blockbuster.  It's fine for what it is, I suppose, but I was left wanting more.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Kill the Irishman

Biopics are an oddity for me in the film world.  On the one hand, there is something inherently fascinating with a life that is so large that it actually makes sense for it to be on the big screen.  And that's good.  On the other hand, most biopics play it loose with their pacing, typically relying on the life and death of the main character instead of imposing a dramatic arc to the story.  And that's bad.  I didn't realize that Kill the Irishman was a biopic at first --- shame on me for not reading the tagline --- I was just intrigued by a movie with a fairly big-name supporting cast.

Kill the Irishman is the story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson).  Danny started out as a lowly dock worker in Cleveland who happened to be a bit of a tough guy with a soft heart for his fellow poor Irish-Americans.  What should you do if you find yourself in a bit of trouble with the mob?  Interrupt Danny having sex and have him settle the dispute for you, obviously. 
Or...maybe wait fifteen minutes
Actually, that little bit doesn't play a major part in the film, but it felt so odd that I had to bring it up.  Danny strong arms (or face-slaps) his way to a union leader position on the docks, but is eventually ousted for illegal activities.  But you can't keep a good Irishman down, as he eventually works his back to power in another union, with the support of low-level mobster John Nardi (Vincent D'Onofrio). 
Mafia soldiers have to earn their neckties
Once he gets a taste of power and all the respect and happiness (and money) that brings, Danny starts his own Irish mob and acts as a low-level enforcer group.  Things get a little dicey when Danny borrows money from the New York mob to build a legitimate restaurant and the money never arrives; the courier is busted by police on drug charges.  The New York mob wants their money back, but Danny refuses to pay because he never received the money, so the title comes into play.  If you've ever seen a mobster movie before, you can guess the rest.  Hint: car bombs and gunfire play prominent roles in the third act of the film.

I haven't really seen much of Ray Stevenson's work, but he seems like a perfectly serviceable tough guy.  He appears tough, looks mean, and handles his lines capably.  Not outstanding work, but not bad.  Vincent D'Onofrio, on the other hand, took a fairly dull role and gave it some life.  If his part was written just a bit better, I would have really enjoyed his performance.  Similarly, Christopher Walken shows up as a money man and is amusing, as always; aside from speaking the line "Kill the Irishman," though, it's a pretty forgettable performance. 
"Insert movie title here"
 He's not the only one to basically tread water in his performance.  Val Kilmer does his best impression of a "before" photo for P90X as he plays a somewhat disinterested and slowly swelling police officer following Danny Greene's misdeeds.  The oddest part about Kilmer's role is that he provides occasional narration, implying that he is either supposed to know more or be more important than he actually is in this film.  Linda Cardenelli got to play Wife #1 for Greene; I like Cardenelli well enough, but this is just a cookie-cutter role that she adds nothing to. 
Biopic Wife #1, Phase 3: disenchantment and nagging, ahoy!
Vinnie Jones and Marcus Thomas round out the principal cast as Danny's somewhat nondescript underlings.  However, there are still an absolute ton of recognizable faces in this cast.  Paul Sorvino, Robert Davi, Tony Darrow, Steve Schirripa, Mike Starr and Tony Lo Bianco all play bit parts as mobsters in this film; that's not a stretch for any of them, given their collective mob movie history.  These guys provide bits of reassurance when you're watching --- maybe their performances are solid, or maybe the roles are such a comfortable fit for them --- so you don't actually mind that most of them are simply playing mobster stereotypes.  Why did so many movie mobsters decide to have bit roles in Kill the Irishman?  I don't know, but the film is better for their presence.

Kill the Irishman was directed and co-written by Jonathan Hensleigh.  The film is told in a coherent enough fashion, although you might expect a little more art if you've been spoiled by Coppola or Scorsese mob flicks.  My biggest gripe is that the story is so familiar.  I get it, this is based on a true story.  That doesn't mean that it has to be entirely predictable.  The script isn't even clever or filled with memorable characters, either; there is nothing about this story that stands out, aside from the main mobster being Irish.  Hell, I bet 40% of the script has stage directions for the actors to scowl.
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I will give credit where it is due, though.  While I admit that the sheer number of explosions in this film seem ridiculous, that particular period in Cleveland crime was rife with car bombs, so "A" for historical accuracy on that count.  I also liked seeing so many familiar faces playing mobsters in this movie; none of them were spectacular, but it looked like they were having fun overacting. 
Except Kilmer, who never appears to have fun in movies

Hensleigh doesn't do a bad job with Kill the Irishman, but he does turn out a mostly forgettable film.  The movie isn't worth watching for fancy direction or great acting, and the story is pretty basic stuff.  It could have been worse, but a story about a guy who takes on the mob could be so much better than this.