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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Meteor (1979) - Review

For cinephiles the 70s was the heyday of the disaster movie beginning in 1972 with Irwin Allen’s excellent film The Poseidon Adventure and ending with today’s feature the less than stellar Meteor. Directed by Ronald Neame this movie blends the Cold War political thriller with the elements of your standard disaster movie and for that the movie gains points for originality but then loses those points for it also being tedious and downright sexist at times.

meteor 
You can tell it’s a 70s disaster movie by the cast boxes on the poster.

The plot centers on Dr. Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) formerly of NASA who is yanked out of retirement by the government because a colossal asteroid named Orpheus is heading to Earth and only his space based missile platform named Hercules has a chance of stopping it.

Hercules poster 
“No, not that Hercules!”

The problem is that Bradley quit NASA when the U.S. Government decided instead of using his missile system to ward of dangerous space debris it would suit them better if it were pointed down at Earth and by Earth we mean Russia. Bradley begrudgingly agrees to help realign the missile platform despite the ravings of General Adlon (Martin Landau) who doesn’t want anyone to use the missiles as it will be admitting to the world that the United States broke all treaties about arming space.

General Asshole 
“Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!”

Harry Sherwood (Karl Malden) of NASA is able to talk The President (Henry Fonda) into putting Bradley in charge and making Adlon step aside.  This doesn’t sit at all well with the General who later practically storms out of the Command Center holding his breath like a two year old who didn’t get his way.

Eath in Danger 
We are interrupted often with shots of Orpheus to remind us there’s an actual threat out there.

Of course crazy military nutbars are not the only problem facing our heroes it seems that Orpheus is too big for even America’s awesome Hercules missile platform to take care of all by itself so they have to go to the Russians and get them to admit they have their own nuclear missile platform in space and then combine it’s explosive power with Hercules to nudge the five mile wide asteroid into an orbit that would no longer threaten Earth. The Russians hold off admitting owning any such device but they do send over their head astrophysicist Dr. Dubov (Brian Keith) and his interpreter Tatiana Donskaya (Natalie Wood) to consult “theoretically” on what can be done.

Command Center 
Hercules Command Center deep under the Hudson River, New York City.

This is where the uncomfortable sexism rears its ugly head as General Adlon has insisted on having his own interpreter present to ensure that Tatiana is properly translating what he says, this apparently makes him an asshole, and Bradley steps in saying

hire the pretty one 
Sean Connery, friend to women everywhere.

At one point Tatiana chats with Jan Watkins (Katherine De Hetre), one of the Hercules staffers, and their conversation is about getting nice bed linens, good soap and how awfully nice Jan’s scarf is and not about their jobs or the current crisis as one would hope two professionals would do. Later Tatiana finds the scarf she admired cleaned and pressed in her room as a gift. *sigh* If this was supposed to be some kind of character building moment the writers should be taken out and slapped soundly. But it’s okay because Jan is the one they chose to kill off at the end to make the audience realize the horror of it all.

Pretty dead 
Maybe if she had kept that scarf she would have survived.

An issue that every movie that deals with an asteroid threatening the Earth has to overcome is the fact that if the heroes succeed the audience doesn’t get to see all that awesome wholesale destruction that they paid their $5 bucks for. The solution is precursor attacks; in this case “splinters” of Orpheus will hit the Earth at random throughout the movie’s running time to keep the audience from nodding off or leaving.

Siberia hit 
We get an impact in the wilds of Siberia.

Swiss Disaster 
The total destruction of a Swiss Alps holiday resort town by avalanche.

Japan hit 
And a tsunami that wipes out Hong Kong.

What these events pretty much always fail to do in these types of movies is garner any emotional response from the viewer as none of these scenes contain any characters we have come to know or care about. We just sit back and “Oooh” and “Ahhh” at all the hard work the special effects teams and stuntmen went to. If well done it can still be entertaining but in this film any disaster shot that involved an optical effect looked just terrible with only the odd practical effects shot and stunt work looking respectable.

Tidal Wave 
“Paul, there is a huge tidal wave on my Blue-Screen!”

Meanwhile our team has aligned both Hercules and the Russian’s missile platform Peter the Great, which the Russians finally admitted to having, and prepare to launch them at Orpheus, but just as things are going well another splinter is spotted and this one is going to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.  The shit just got real.

Twin Towers Destroyed 
Post 9/11 filmmakers lost a favorite target for disasters.

Lucky for us the team at Project Hercules were able to launch the missiles seconds before the splinter hit Manhattan but I call bullshit on the idea that a button had to pressed as the whole thing had to be co-ordinated with the Russians space platform to within a fraction of a second so there is no way any human being would be pressing any stupid trigger anywhere, it would all be computer controlled. We are then treated to shots of missiles flying through space. In fact we get lots and lots of shots of missiles flying through space.

missles away 
If phallic images soaring through space is your thing than boy is this the movie for you!

It is at this point that the film becomes your tried and true disaster film as the Command Center was severely damaged by the splinter hitting the city above and our cast of characters must scramble heroically to make their way to the surface. Bradley takes the lead as the survivors must trudge through damaged subway tunnels while the Hudson River starts to pour in.

Mud slide 
New York’s notoriously dirty subway system gets a mud bath.

Trivia Break: A million pounds of mud were used for this sequence and the eight to fourteen day shoot could not have been pleasant for anybody. Sean Connery was off for two days due to a respiratory condition caused by the mud, Natalie Wood was almost sucked into one of the pumps, and Karl Malden was buried in the mud twice!  At least this was all for a good…oh right, never mind.

Actors in peril 
“Here’s mud in your eye.”

Eventually the missiles from Hercules and Peter the Great reach their target and blow Orpheus to smithereens, wait…what? It was clearly stated earlier in the film that the plan was to shift the orbit of the asteroid not destroy it as even the combined nuclear might of the Americans and Russians missiles wouldn’t have a chance of actually blowing the thing up, yet it seems that the screenwriters forgot this little nugget of information as we clearly see Orpheus being blown into space dust.

fireball in space 
In the largest fireball you will ever see in the vacuum of space.

This movie failed to catch fire with audiences and critics alike and with its 16 million dollar production budget it only managed to take in a little over 8 million domestically at the box office. Thus came an end to the 70s era of disaster films and not with a bang but with a whimper.

Crater City 
This film helped crater American International Pictures.

Later films like Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Deep Impact would make serious bank with the killer asteroid sub-genre but even those have serious dubious science moments and cartoon like characters but Meteor gets credit for being first so that’s something…right?

Highrise destruction 
“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere!”

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Moon Maid: Edgar Rice Burroughs - Book Review


all star weekly moon maidIt seems that Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells both held the belief that WWI, or as it was known then The Great War or The War to End All Wars was just a preamble to bigger conflict and that the world powers would eventually toss the planet into chaos on an even more global scale. Of course WWII proved them right but lucky for us it was not quite as bleak as they wrote for in H.G. Wells’s Things to Come and Burroughs stories Beyond the Farthest Star and todays entry The Moon Maid all dealt with a world war the raged for decades.

Once again Burroughs deploys the narrative device of the story being recounted to the author of this book by a second party only in the case of The Moon Maid it involves the narrator’s reincarnation backwards through time. Yes, Burroughs does not stint on bizarre storytelling motifs. The book begins in the distant year of 1967 where the war that had been raging since 1914 has finally ended with the Anglo-Saxon side winning complete victory over all other races. It’s then that we are introduced to Julien the 3rd who has knowledge of the future because he has complete awareness of memories of his past and future incarnations. He recounts the tale of his ancestor Julien the 5th and his adventures on the moon.

The story then jumps to the perspective of Julien the 5th in the 21st Century who is a member of the International Peace Fleet which is the only military on the planet as almost all weapons have been banned and just as the people of Earth are wondering what to do with themselves now that there is no war communications with Barsoom (That’s Mars for the John Cater uninitiated) is established. Using the Barsoomian science of controlling the different “Rays” plans for travelling between worlds are made, but unfortunately the Barsoom attempt to travel to Earth fails and when our hero Julien the 5th and his team attempt to travel to Mars/Barsoom they are brought down by sabotage and end up landing on or to be more accurate in the Moon.

The sabotage of the craft (The ship was christened with the hopeful name Barsoom) was carried out by Lieutenant Commander Orthis who in a drunken jealous rage destroyed the crafts radio, engines and navigation. Orthis was a brilliant scientist, and the one responsible for the ship’s design and construction, but his entire career had been overshadowed by Julien since their school days. Think Reed Richards and Doctor Doom’s relationship. Orthis, in his drunken state, would rather see the mission fail and all on board die than let any credit go to Julien the ship’s captain.

Lucky for the crew of the Barsoom it turns out that the Moon isn’t a lifeless rock but is actually hollow and its interior holds a vast and marvellous world full of both wonders and terrors. Julien makes the colossal mistake of not shooting Orthis in the face for his treasonous acts and lets mercy stay his hand. Even worse Julien takes Orthis out on exploratory mission when really the dude should have been at least confined to the ship. Some would call Julien’s actions too trusting but I’d go with downright stupid.

They soon encounter one of the primary inhabitants of the Moon (which is named Va-Nah by its inhabitants) which are called Va-gas and are a brutal cannibalistic race of centaur like creatures. In battle Julien and Orthis are shocked to see that when they wound one of the Va-gas it is immediately murdered by the nearest Va-gas to which they soon learn is because the main source of food among the Va-gas is each other. It seems the Va-gas, and actually all the sentient races on the Moon are not big on fruits and vegetables as most of the animal life on the Moon is too poisonous to eat, thus cannibalism is apparently the best option.

moon maid cover


Julien and Orthis are captured by the Va-gas but because of their strange appearance and even stranger origins they are not immediately tossed into a stew pot, but they are separated which allows Orthis to work his evil machinations on the Va-gas chieftain. While in captivity a brutal storm hits the tribe and out of it drops a fair maiden of the other prominant race on the Moon, Nah-ee-la a princess of the city of Laythe, who is an U-ga a race that look remarkably human if a bit pale. This Moon Maid is not eaten because the Va-gas Chief hopes to ransom her for more of her people, who they will of course then eat. Later we find out that the U-ga also eat the Va-gas and actually raise these sentient centaurs as cattle, breeding them to be dumb as possible so that they are unaware of their destiny as dinner. Overall this is one messed up and disturbing world our hero has landed in.

Of course Julien will escape the nasty Va-gas with Nah-ee-la and eventually they will make it to her people, but not before he is separated from the beautiful Moon Maid and captured by the Kalkars a rival city of U-gas that splintered the race centuries ago. His escapes from them only to finally arrive at Laythe to find that city on the brink of revolution as Nah-ee-la’s father is about to be overthrown by a nasty piece of work that is secretly working with Kalkars.  No rest for the wicked.

Julien’s love life is also threatened due to once again a girl misunderstanding the situation and believing that our hero is working with the villains, but Civil War and love are both put on hold as even though the city is being torn apart from within it is suddenly attacked from without. Orthis, leading an army of Kalkars that he has outfitted with modern weapons of war has taken this perfect moment to attack Laythe. It seems that while Julien was traipsing around the Moon having adventures good ole Orthis was wheeling and dealing to make himself a warlord. Things look pretty dire indeed.

MoonMaidCWCover


This is by far one of the most gruesome yet fascinating stories that Burroughs had ever written, the cannibalistic natures of not only the villains but of everybody on the moon is just bizarre. One would not expect the author to reveal that the heroine eats sentient beings but Burroughs pulls off such a topic brilliantly allowing the readers to come to grips with such a gruesome idea. The history and culture of Va-nah is rich and captivating and easily the most well thought out world that Burroughs ever created.

As Julien, Nah-ee-lee and the crew of the Barsoom make their eventually escape from the Moon the reader can only wonder, “What does this mean for Earth?”

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"It's not Christmas if I haven't watched..."

Christmas is a time which means many things for many people; buying presents, decorating a tree, drinking eggnog, singing carols (oh and of course peace on Earth and good will to all men). For me, however; it isn’t truly Christmas unless I’ve made it through my checklist of must-watch Christmas shows.

lucy 
“All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

When I was growing up much of the Holidays were centered around when these Christmas specials aired. Now with DVD, Blu-ray and the internet any and all of these specials are at our fingertips whenever we want them, so here is my list of programs that bring out the season in me.

Frosty the Snowman 

Based on the popular song by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson of a magical top hat bringing a snowman to life, this song has delighted children of all ages for many years and the 1969 Rankin-Bass animated television special is easily one of their best. Done with traditional cel animation, this Christmas special has everything; a great narrator in the form of Jimmy Durante, a lovable title character voiced by Jackie Vernon, an adorable little girl who risks her life to help Frosty, a cute rabbit sidekick and a nasty villain-Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe) who really, really wants his hat back. When I was a kid and watched Frosty melt in the greenhouse I bawled by eyes out for what seemed like years.

Its_Wonderful_Life 

This is one of those Christmas Classics that has very little actually to do with Christmas, the story of good man George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who believes that the world may be better off without him. This film has only one key Christmas scene in it, though that finale scene is a doozy, but this Frank Capra masterpiece will always hold a spot on any Christmas list. Funny enough it really became a seasonal classic when the copyrights to it slipped into public domain and any network could show it for free. Thus it became a Christmas gift to everybody.

miracle on 34th street 

Santa on trial!” That is certainly a catchy premise and this Fox classic contains one of my favourite courtroom scenes, and it also contains my favourite portrayal of Santa Claus with Edmund Gwenn as a warm and kindly Kris Kringle who may or may not be the real deal. His attempts at winning over a young Natalie Wood are sweet and charming. What is strange is that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted in releasing the film in May because the summer is when people mostly go to the movies; lucky for him people did go and see it, so many in fact that many theatres were still showing it when Christmas finally did roll around.

christmas-carol-scrooge 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has probably been adapted and updated more than any other single story in the history of media and though the 1951 version isn’t the first it is my personal favourite as Alastair Sim is to me the quintessential Ebenezer Scrooge. The four ghosts that come to haunt the King of Humbugs are all brilliantly portrayed and the scene when the Ghost shows Scrooge two sickly, scrawny children “Ignorance and Want” is truly chilling. My other favorite versions of this Dickens classic are Scrooged with Bill Murray and The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.

christmas vacation 

This Chevy Chase vehicle perfectly captures the chaos that can consume some of us during the holidays but as this is a Griswold Christmas things are going to go to extremes- from lighting disasters to Christmas tree calamities to the ever annoying relatives that are destined to plague a holiday home. Without a doubt there is a little of Clark Griswold in all of us.

Rudolph 

This was the first of Rankin-Bass’s specials and my favourite from their holiday catalogue as the story of misfits banding together against insurmountable odds, in this case an abominable snowman, to make for great drama and great television. An elf dentist, a mutant reindeer, and a gold fixated geologist were a wonderful team and I visit them each and every year as they face off against discrimination and Bumbles.

skinny santa 
Side Note: The skinny Santa forced by his wife to eat and get fat I always found to be kind of creepy.


a_christmas_story_12 

Based on the short stories by Jean Shepherd from his book In God We Trust: All Other Pay Cash, this movie easily wins the “Most Aired Award” as it known for some stations to run 24 hour marathons of it. The story of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) and his quest for a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle is completely relatable, who hasn’t wished and wished for a certain special present that would make ones life complete? Add to that: bullies, soap poisoning and a leg lamp obsessed father and you have all the ingredients for a perfect comedy and an excellent Christmas movie.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas 

You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch.” With the dulcet singing voice of Tony the Tiger (Thurl Ravenscroft) and frightening narration by horror icon Boris Karloff this entry has to be the best adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book to date. (The less said about that Jim Carrey abomination the better.) Directed by animation legend Chuck Jones, How the Grinch Stole Christmas not only has some of the catchiest songs ever and one of literature’s greatest literary villains, but it also has Max who, as sidekicks go, is pure comedy gold- him waving from the back of the sled kills me every single time I see it.

max 
The Grinch may have stole Christmas but Max steals every scene.

CHARLIE BROWN TRIES TO PERK UP THE FORLORN LITTLE CHRISTMAS TREE 

Many of the Christmas specials and movies speak out against the commercialism of Christmas, often making that theme their major plot element, but it is A Charlie Brown Christmas that really goes the distance. The special begins with Charlie Brown railing against the season as it just points out how nobody likes him, “I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.” What is surprising is that his nemesis Lucy Van Pelt is the one that tries to help by getting him involved with the Christmas play, which for me really speaks to the heart of the season.

linus 
“Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people.”

When Charlie Brown selects a pathetically sad Christmas tree over aluminum colored trees that everyone else favors he is first derided for his choice but when Linus takes center stages and starts quoting scripture the gang eventually come around. Now I’m not remotely a religious person but it’s nice to see a Christmas special that actually acknowledges Christ, it is his birthday after all. The Grinch may discover that Christmas doesn’t come from a store but its Charles M. Schulz and company who go to the actual spirit of Christmas, which is kind of nice.
 
Dishonorable mention goes to Santa Claus: The Movie David Huddleston 
It’s Ho-Ho-Horrible, but I end up watching it every year.

So there’s my list of must see Christmas specials, now what are your favorite holiday viewings?

"Nightmares!" by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

nightmares_612x920At some point in our childhood most of us have found ourselves cowering under the covers because we knew something was lurking in the dark corners of our bedroom. Is that shadow on the wall just from the tree outside the window or is it something far more nefarious? Could that dark lump by the dresser be merely a chair or could it be a goblin looking for a late night snack?


 Like many kids I had an over active imaginations and so many nights found me nestled safely between my parents in their bed because I was sure a ghost or witch was lurking in my closet (This could explain why I was the last child in our family), but what if there was no safe haven and you had to face those terrors alone? This is the subject matter Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s tackle with their book Nightmares! As our young protagonist Charlie Laid finds himself with a few problems:

1. His dad married a woman he is sure MOONLIGHTS AS A WITCH.
2. He had to move into her purple mansion, which is NOT A PLACE YOU WANT TO BE AFTER DARK.
3. He can’t remember the last time sleeping wasn’t a NIGHTMARISH PROSPECT.

nightmares_mainpromo_1p.jpg__620x250_q85_crop-smart


Whenever Charlie succumbs to sleep he finds himself in nightmarish world where a witch and her cat debate over eating his toes and how they will cook his little brother, but what is more frightening is he believes that his Stepmonster is involved and that the terrors of the nightmares could be crossing over into the waking world.

charlie


This book is not just a fright filled children’s story, though it certainly is that, but it beautifully tackles such subjects as loss, change, personal courage and responsibility. By the end of the book I was greatly moved by how well such matters were addressed and can see this book being used to help children going through similar tough times.  Humor and monsters can some times be just what the doctor ordered.
The book is marvellously illustrated by Karl Kwasny in a style reminiscent of the great Charles Addams and perfectly captures the text and feel of this genre.

medusa


Originally written by Segel years ago, based on his night terrors he had as a child, he first published it as a script but as the years went by he eventually was able to get it back and then teamed up with respected children’s author Kristen Miller who he knew could help crack the prose, and thus we now have this first installment of what looks to be an excellent trilogy.

stepmonster 
Child or adult I can highly recommend this book to you.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Out of Time’s Abyss: by Edgar Rice Burroughs - Book Review


When we last saw our intrepid heroes Bowen Tyler and Lys La Rue had married and sailed away aboard the rescue ship Toreador while Tom Billings, who had come to Caspak to find Tyler, had to remain behind to be with Ajor the Caspakian native girl that he fell in love with.

Out of Time’s Abyss was first published in 1918 in Blue Book Magazine and finishes off the Caspak Trilogy. Though this book is follows The People That Time Forgot most of it takes place before the events of that book and contain characters from The Land That Time Forgot that went missing towards the end of that installment. The hero of this book is Bradley (whether this is his first or last name we will never know) and while Tyler had gone out hunting Bradley and a small group men went off exploring and this story begins with them heading back to Camp Dinosaur unaware that Tyler has run off to rescue Lys from some randy natives or that the submarine had been taken over by Von Schoenvort and his German cohorts, who after shelling Camp Dinosaur left Caspak for Germany and thus marooning everyone to the mercies of this primitive world.
Unfortunately for Bradley and company the occasional hungry dinosaur or ravaging cave bear is the least of their worries as each night they are plagued by winged visitors that a couple of the more superstitious men believe to be banshees, harbingers of death. When two of the men, who appeared to be singled out by these winged men, end up dead shortly after things look grim. Those who have read The People That Time Forgot of course know these beings to be the Weiroo, the winged men of Caspak that snatch the Galu women because they cannot produce female offspring of their own. The remaining men make it back safely to Camp Dinosaur, all those that is except Bradley who is snatched by a Weiroo during his shift on guard duty.

The evil creature takes Bradley to the island of Oo-oh, set in Caspak’s inland sea, and it is there that we meet this episodes love interest in the form of the beautiful Co-Tan who is a Galu, the other highly evolved species of humans in Caspak. In the previous book we learned a bit about the strange biological system of Caspak where individuals seem to evolve up the evolutionary ladder over time, but it is from Co-Tan that we finally find out the mystery behind there being no children. Women of Caspak bathe in these warm pools and while there they discharge tadpoles that then flow into the rivers until they reach the warm southern waters of Caspak, it’s there that their metamorphosis and their long seven cycle life begins. From tiny tadpole to eventually the intelligent Neolithic Galu, it’s magical!

Bradley does much sneaking around secret passages and killing vile murderous winged bastards that get in his way, all the while trying to escape the this mad city, but eventually he and Co-Tan make it out of the city and down to the coast where they live happily for months. And like most of Burroughs protagonists he is thick as a the proverbial brick when it comes to realizing he is in love, so poor Co-Tan has to cook and clean while this idiot blindly plans for a way to get her back to her people when she has already chosen him as “Her Man.”

With some “help” from some captured Weiroo Bradley and Co-Tan eventually make it back to the mainland and strangely enough run into Von Schoenvort and the surviving Germans whose escape from Caprona wasn’t as long as they had hoped. The Germans had captured the remaining sailors of Tyler’s men but though outnumbered Bradley attacks then wins, he succeeds in this seemingly suicidal endeavor mainly because Von Schoenvort was a real asshole even to his own men and thus most of his people didn’t put up much of a fight. Everyone boards the submarine and proceed to once again look for Bowen Tyler.

book cover 1


Out of Time’s Abyss wraps up the Caspak trilogy rather well. Bradley and company eventually find Co-Tan’s people and with them is Ajor and Tom Billings. It is a joyous meeting but with a dark shadow as Ajor tells Co-Tan that her father, the High Chief, will never let her leave Caspak with Bradley as she is like Ajor a fully evolved Galu who are able to give birth naturally and thus critical to her peoples evolution. Bradley offers to give a “tour” of the Submarine to Ajor, Co-Tan and Billings and when everyone is on board they just motor away. “Fuck you, yah Primitive Screwheads!” U-33 eventually catches up with the Toreador and we are treated to another merry reunion as all our heroes sail off into the sunset.

This isn’t as solid of a story as The Land That Time Forgot or The People That Time Forgot as it seems almost like a very long deleted scene. Bradley’s adventures among the Weiroo aren’t terrible but also not all that original or exciting and Co-Tan is just Ajor with a different name. The book’s saving grace is the final revelation of the biology of Caspak, and it is quite fascinating, and at least we do get a proper conclusion to everyone’s story.

otatm1c3


We were certainly never going to see Amicus Productions make this book into a movie, even if they hadn’t gone out of business, as their budgets would never have allowed for a city of winged people.  One can only hope that some day another studio will take a crack at this book series, an HBO series with nice production values would be sweet, but until then we will always have these fun books to look back on.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Annie (2014)

Modernizing Little Orphan Annie is certainly not a bad idea as one would have a hard time releasing a movie today featuring a war profiteer who rails against organized labor, is portrayed as an idealized capitalist and not be the film’s bad guy. Adopting a dozen red headed moppets couldn’t soften that image for today’s audiences.

Annie banner 
It’s a hard knock life!

Enter producer Will Smith and director Will Gluck who drag everyone’s favorite little orphan girl into 21st Century with a little African-American alteration in casting and some sweeping changes to the world of Little Orphan Annie. For me, and I’d like to think most people, the changing of Annie from red-headed Caucasian girl to a African-American one doesn’t even make a blip any political correctness radar, and the casting of Quvenzhané Wallis is easily the best decision this movie makes, sadly it is one of only a few good decisions this movie makes.

quvenzhanee-wallis-600 
Little Foster Annie.

Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a sweet orphan kid living with a group of other foster girls living under the drunken care of Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz) who is only in it for the $157 dollars a week per kid she gets from the government. This Mrs. Hannigan is a little on the lighter side when compared to the Carol Burnett version we got in the 1982 movie as this updated Hannigan is more bitter than mean, she has a backstory where we find out she came close to fame as a singer and then had it snatched away from her at the last minute, this makes her eventual redemption more believable.

I was in the mask 
“I use to sing at the Coco Bongo club!”

In the case of this films Daddy Warbucks analog we have Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) a billionaire who made his money in cell phones and now wants to be Mayor of New York City. We learn that he grew up in Queens but due to a tough work ethic he developed from his now deceased father he rose to the top of his field, and because this is Movie Cliché Land hard work always means you’re neglecting the important things in life. He doesn’t notice that his chief assistant Grace Farrell (Rose Byrne) is in love with him or that his campaign advisor Guy (Bobby Cannavale) is a slimy asshat, but worst of all is that he has basically lost touch with “The People.” Apparently this is a near unforgivable sin.  He desperately needs something to soften his image.

jamie foxx 
Can a singing orphan girl save this poor billionaire?

We are treated to most of the songs from the original musical, as well as a few new ones, and overall they are quite well done, but where the film fails is in its attempts at comedy and in its horrible third act.  And I do mean horrible, the level of lazy writing for this movie’s conclusion is staggering, at no point does slimy campaign advisor’s plan to create fake parents for Annie make any sense, nor in any way would it not land all involved in jail.

Kidnapped 
“Help, I’ve been kidnapped by a plot contrivance!”

And as for the supposed comedy, well there is a scene in this film where Will takes Annie to a movie premiere and he acts as if he’s never seen a movie before, jumping out of his seat and shouting at the characters on screen, he grew up in Queens not the jungles of Borneo for Pete’s sake! It’s this kind of culture class comedy that prevents this film from being a decent adaptation as everyone in this production is talented, the songs are tried and true, so it comes down to the failure of the screenplay and the direction, well that and the fact that several of those talented people don’t actually know how to sing and are obviously aided by Auto-Tune.

Fame 
“Next stop, Glee!”

Quvenzhané Wallis is a fantastic young performer, and she truly shines in this film, so her career will certainly not be harmed but its overall averageness. Just remember kid no matter what the critics say, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow!”

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

I don’t think you will find too many people that will dispute the fact that the book The Hobbit in no way warranted three movies let alone three overly long movies, but with Middle-earth source material drying up the studios convinced Peter Jackson to help them make as much money as possible. The parallel between MGM and New Lines blatant cash grab and Thorin Oakenshield’s descent into greedy madness was not lost on me.



The third installment starts right where the last one left off with a pissed off Smaug heading to Lake-town to let loose with some fiery vengeance, poor old Bard (Luke Evans) has been locked up by the corrupt Master of Lake-Town (Stephen Fry) and his stooge Alfrid (Ryan Gage) so he is at first unable to fight of the fire breathing dragon.

afrid and the Master 
The Dumb and Dumberer of Middle Earth.

Now the destruction we behold under this attack is spectacular but once again Peter Jackson can’t help himself by overdoing action sequences, Bard’s escape from captivity is not only stupid but too plot character coincidental. It’s as if Jackson was traumatized by Rube Goldberg Machine as a child and for some cathartic reason must now use such devices in every bloody action scene.

smaug 
This on the other hand needs no action additives.

And what of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), in the book he was instrumental in defeating Smaug as upon his learning of the dragon’s missing scale a noble thrush delivers this news to Bard who with just a regular arrow brings down Smaug, now in the movies Bilbo learned of this vulnerability but as he never has a chance to pass this information along it now becomes irrelevant. Bard spots the missing scale on his own and uses the last of the “Black Arrows” to kill Smaug thus negating Bilbo’s importance in bringing down the dragon. Why a professed fan of Tolkien would make that change is beyond me. I assume it has something to do with him being against talking birds, because who would buy something like that in a fantasy story about dwarves and dragons?

Bolg 
Orcs with Frankenstein plates in their heads on the other hand is okay

In the first two movies Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) was a bit of a dick, but once he and the dwarves reclaim Erebor he goes right off the deep end into evil Scrooge McDuck territory and this brings up the biggest failing of the series, and especially the conclusion, and that is how quickly I stopped caring for any of these characters. Between Thorin’s gold fever, Bilbo’s advanced onset ring dementia, Bard and Alfrid’s constant conflicts, and the love story between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) I found myself so overloaded that my only defense was to shout, “Stop, I just don’t give a shit!”

the-hobbit-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-movie 
Remember when this was about a Hobbit and his fun adventures with the dwarves?

One of the strangest elements in this movie is Jackson’s obsession with the character of Alfrid, who is just a one note toady and not all that interesting, and once Lake-Town was destroyed that should have been the last we ever saw of him, but no he keeps popping up again and again until I’m up out of my seat screaming, “Will someone please just kill that asshole already!” I know Jackson had to add stuff to stretch this story into a trilogy but I would have taken anything over that, even more drippy dwarf/elf love that dare not speak its name.

kili and tariel 
“I’m sorry, but I’m immortal and you…you are short.”

Now I’m not saying this film is without merit, Peter Jackson and company bring some pretty amazing visuals to life and I cannot say any actor gave a bad performance, well maybe Ryan Gage as Alfrid he kinda sucked, but most of the cast was hampered by a script that went for the cinematic spectacle over true character moments. When the Five Armies do clash it is pretty remarkable, and we finally get to see what an army of dwarves look like and I must say I wouldn’t want to face them in battle. Seriously, Thorin’s cousin Dáin (Billy Connolly) constantly head-butts helmeted orcs with his bare noggin. Yikes!

war-goats-the-battle-of-the-five-armies-the-hobbit 
Dwarves on War Goats!

Stray Thoughts:
• Bard must have rolled a natural 20 with his +4 arrow.
• The villains all had way too many, “Oh shit, he’s not actually dead!” moments.
• Were those bat creatures from Skull Island?
• I’ll admit the spectral nine that will become the Ring Wraiths were pretty sweet looking.
• Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) rocks the Dark Queen thing really well.
• Legolas (Orlando Bloom) steering a peg-legged troll was damn ridiculous.
• Bilbo Baggins, Action Hobbit! Really, was that necessary?
• Will elf  king Thanduill (Lee Pace) ever discover the true meaning of Christmas?

elf on a deer 
“Hey, Santa wants his deer and elves back!”

Thus closes the final chapter of The Hobbit and until Peter Jackson decides to make a quadrilogy out of the Farmer Giles of Ham this will be our last trip to Middle-earth for a while and I for one could use the break.