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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Death Takes a Holiday (1934) – Review

The anthropomorphic personification of Death in cinema is almost as old as the art form itself, whether Death is playing chess with Max Von Sydow in The Seventh Seal or crashing Vincent Prices party in The Masque of the Red Death it has always been a fascinating architype that writers and filmmakers have loved to dabble with. The1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella is if not the first portrayal of the incarnation of Death in a somewhat sympathetic light it is at least one of the earliest, and then after being successfully adapted into English for Broadway as Death Takes a Holiday in 1929 it made its way to the silver screen in a film directed by Mitchell Leisen and starring the great Fredric March.


The movie opens with Duke Lambert (Guy Standing) and his family and guests driving home after a fun night at the local carnival, but the evening almost takes a nasty turn as a dark shadow seems to be stalking them. The two cars carrying our cast of characters survive this scary encounter, though one of the cars does take out a flower cart, and they arrive safely at Villa Felicitá the stately home of Duke Lambert. While everyone unwinds after their narrow escape with death we learn that the Duke’s son Corrado (Kent Taylor) is hopelessly in love with Grazia (Evelyn Venable), the daughter of Princess Maria (Kathleen Howard), but Grazia herself is reluctant to marry despite everyone thinking this is a perfect match, almost badgeringly so as they tell her, "Oh we think you have been free long enough."

 

Cause you know, freedom is so overrated.

She tries to explain to the group that though she loves them all that she isn’t quite ready to settle down, “Because life is too…there is a kind of happiness I want to find first, if I can. There is something out there that I must find first. Something I must understand.” Grazia asks to be left alone for bit and goes to sit in the garden, but alone she isn’t and soon the group hear her scream and find her collapsed in the garden. When asked what happened she is unable to explain herself clearly, “There was something cold and terrible. I was sitting by the fountain watching the water. I could hear the music, and then a shadow blew over. That’s what it was, a shadow.” Some think she was startled by a prowler, though no evidence of one can be found when the grounds are searched, but later that night Duke Lambert is approached by the “intruder” and is shocked to learn that he is speaking to Death itself, “I am…how shall I describe it? A sort of vagabond of space. I am the point of contact between eternity and time.”

 

After he is done here he has to visit Ebenezer Scrooge.

Turns out that Death (Fredric March) wishes to discover why men fear him as they do and plans to spend three days as a mortal to find out. He himself has no way to grasp even the concept of fear, “What could terror mean to me who having nothing to fear?” Seems Death has grown weary of always being misunderstood, “Can you conceive how lonely I am when there is nothing that doesn’t shun me, that doesn’t fade as I come near?” Death wishes to know why men cling to life while fearing him, and to do this he strikes a bargain with Duke Lambert; he will put Death up for the weekend with the added stipulation that none of the household can know of his true nature, “I shall be a mortal, and I must be treated as a mortal in every particular. No one shall show repulsion or fear, on pain of my instant displeasure.” He clearly states that if this happens he will return in his proper form and the results will not be pleasant for anyone. Death decides to take on the mortal form of Prince Sirki, a guest who was expected but who Death informs the Duke that he will not be seen again, “Not in this life.”

 

Death in the meat suit of Prince Sirki of Vitalba Alexandri.

The Duke tries to prepare his family and friends for the arrival of the Duke by warning them that this guest is no ordinary person and to ignore any of the Prince’s eccentric or strange behaviors, “And above all, you mustn’t be afraid. And no matter what happens you must not shun him, or protest or run…or run.” It’s clear that the Duke is terrified of what Death could do if displeased but that kind of an introduction would seem to cause more angst and suspicion and thus result in the exact opposite of what he’d intended, but lucky for him this group consists of the idle rich and so they’d let almost anything slide as long as the perpetrator was stinking rich, doubly so if he is also of royal blood. This is especially the case with La Contessa di Parma (Katharine Alexander) and American Rhoda Fenton (Gail Patrick), who are hungry for rich husbands and who spend much of the three days in a competition on who can win the Prince’s heart. They unfortunately (or pretty lucky in the long run) don’t stand a chance because Death is clearly smitten with Grazia, but her and her mother were not staying for the weekend so Death must suffer the gold digging efforts of the Contessa and Rhoda.

 

I’d hate to have Death find me boring.

Throughout the three days, while the two women vie for the Prince’s heart, we learn that a man survived jumping from the Eiffel Tower, that a schoolhouse blaze suffered no casualties, and the guns of two warring factions fail to work. So apparently while Death is in a mortal form he is unable to fulfill his duties, which would really set the world into utter turmoil, but what is odd here is that being dead and being hurt are two different things yet this film treats them as about the same thing; leaping off the Eiffel Tower would result in a person’s body being smashed to bits and the schoolhouse fire should have turned the children into crispy critters whether or not they die of those injuries. In those cases death would be considered a release from pain and suffering, but I guess this movie would be a little too dark if it addressed children in agony without the ability to die.  So instead while Death is on holiday everyone in the world is suddenly invulnerable. I understand the choice here but I think if handled a little differently it could have gone towards showing how Death isn’t a villain but an important part of life.

 

Instead we learn that Death can’t lose at the gaming tables.

After almost breaking the bank of the local casino he states that he doesn’t understand men spending time in smoky rooms gambling when they could be outside in the fresh air, “It seems to me that men have not discovered the magnificence of this life.” When Baron Cesarea (Henry Travers) asks pointedly to what exactly is the Prince looking for he is informed that, “I came here for a game to play…a game worth playing” and that in the two days he’s been with Duke Lambert and company everything he has seen seems so very futile and empty. The Baron explains that there are only three games, “Money, love and war” but that it really all comes down to the one game, “One never grows tired of love.” The Prince states that he finds this game to be, “The strangest, the saddest, the emptiest of all.”

 

“One pair of lips will change your mind one day.”

What follows is The Prince trying to explore this game but when he spends too much time analyzing his emotions while experimenting with Rhoda she is put off by his calculated thinking and storms off, but later when the Contessa makes a play for him he informs her that this is impossible, “Because you will take one step toward me and know my secret, and lose courage.” The Contessa pleads with him to “Try me” and when he does she sees the shadows inside him as he wills her to see who he really is. Things do not go well. She screams “I want to live!” and calls for Eric. When a worried group arrive the Duke has to do some fast talking to prevent his son from calling out the Prince, but later the Prince admits to the Duke that he has been “Caught in this web of flesh” and that he cannot think of returning as he is, “To die alone, without living or being loved, and that I will not have!” The theme of gods or immortal beings envying us puny mortals is nothing new but it is really handled beautifully her by Frederic March, you feel the pain and agony of being given a taste of something but then being told to abandon it for all eternity. Lucky for him he once again encounters Grazia, and despite Eric’s efforts, the two fall deeper in love.

There is almost a Romeo and Juliet vibe to this as it looks like they are doomed lovers, “I will hear your footsteps wherever you are,” the Prince tells her, “When our two worlds hold us apart.” With his last hour of humanity quickly slipping by he is sorely tempted to take her when she asks him to, but instead he pleads to her, “Let me hold you once and feel your life. You are the meaning of beauty I must know. Oh Grazia let me hold you, let me feel that last ecstasy and know that I had lived.

 

Who knew Death was such a romantic?

When the two go off together for a bit it’s not clear exactly what happens between the two of them, as the Hays Code wouldn’t allow audiences to see hanky-panky between unmarried people (even if one of them is technically not quite a person), but I’m betting it was pretty steamy. Things finally come to ahead when the Duke is forced to reveal to the group the Prince’s true identity, which really angers Death who had wish to part with the group as friends, with kindly remembrances, “But now my shadow has come between us.” He reveals to the group that not only has he found love but the pain of losing it, “If I must lose it.” Grazia’s mother pleas for the life of her daughter and he eventually relents but when Grazia joins them she insists that she wants to go with him. He tells her that she can’t go with him, that she doesn’t know who he is, and then the clock strikes midnight and he becomes Death, in all his dark glory, and once again he bids them farewell, “Goodbye my friends. Remember that there is only a moment of shadow between your life and mine. And when I call, come bravely through that shadow and you will only find me your familiar friend.”

 

Scary but not so grim of a reaper.

Now this is where you’d think the movie would end, Death having sacrificed his own happiness so that the woman he loved could stay and live with her friends and family, but when he says goodbye to Grazia and tells her, “Now you see me as I am"  and then her response shocks them all, “But I’ve always seen you like that. You haven’t changed."   I've seen this movie four times now and this moment still causes me to tear up.


Death: “You have seen me like this?”
Grazia: “Yes, always.”
Death: “Then there is a love which casts out fear, and I have found it! And love is greater than illusion and as strong as death."


If that isn't one of the most romantic endings in movie history I'll eat my hat.  Sure it's dark and has echoes of Persephone’s deal with Hades to live with him in the underworld, minus the kidnapping, but Grazua is clearly a woman who saw deep inside the soul of another and fell in love.  That in this particular case that person in question turned out to be the incarnation of Death is only a minor quibble. This is truly a beautiful film and March’s portrayal of Death is simply wonderful as is Evelyn Venable’s performance here as the lovely Grazia, and though this movie has been remade a couple of times, rather terribly in the case of Meet Joe Black, it’s this original telling that will warm your heart and bring a tear to your eye. I highly recommend Death Takes a Holiday to even the most stoic of hearts.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Triangle (2009) – Review

A masked killer stalking a small group of survivors, as they run through the halls of what appears to be an abandoned ghost ship, may sound like elements to your standard slasher flick, which to be fair it does, but you are in for a big surprise when you sit down to watch writer/director Christopher Smith’s horror/mystery film Triangle because it is far from standard. Now the best way to view a movie like this would be to go in blind, with as little foreknowledge as possible, and if that is the way you’d like to see Triangle than stop reading now and go rent or stream it, but for the sake of this review I will be getting into “some” spoilers but will avoid the big ones.


The movie’s central character is Jess (Melissa George), a waitress and single mother who has come to the veritable breaking point due to the stress of bringing up her autistic son Tommy (Joshua McIvor), and on this sunny Saturday afternoon she plans to go on a sailboat ride with a group of people in the hopes of regaining a bit of her sanity. When she arrives at the dock she seems very frazzled and it's there that good looking Victor (Liam Hemsworth) comments “I don’t think so” when boat owner Greg (Michael Dorman) asks her “Are you okay?” Also part of this nautical outing is married couple Sally (Rachael Carpani) and Downey (Henry Nixon) and their friend Heather (Emma Lung), who they hope to hook up with Greg. Sally seems rather keen to set Greg up with a sensible stable woman and not a waitress with an autistic son, but before there is any chance of romance on the high seas the wind suddenly dies and a nasty storm appears on the horizon.

 

At this point I would have started my engine and headed home.

Instead of engaging his boat’s engine, and getting the hell out of there, Greg calls into the Coast Guard to get weather information. The radio is full of static and the response from the Coast Guard is cut-off by the voice of a woman crying out, “Please help me, she killed them, they are all dead.” Greg is unable to get anymore from the radio but they soon have more to worry about than cryptic radio messages as soon the storm is upon them in full force, and their yacht is soon capsized by a huge wave. Our cast survive the storm, all that is but poor Heather who we never see again, and they find themselves stranded on the hull of the overturned boat in the middle of the ocean. Things certainly look bleak for our intrepid heroes.  Well that is until they see an ocean liner approaching in the distance and when it draws alongside their capsized boat they quickly clamor aboard, that is after spotting a lone figure up on the ship’s deck that strangely failed to respond to their hails.  It's at this point that things begin to look a lot worse than bleak as their situation starts to turn towards the bizarre and the terrifying. The ship seems strangely abandoned as our group searches up and down the hallways, with not a soul in sight, and though Jess mentions she is suffering from a serious case of déjà vu, insisting that she has been here before, the group decide to ignore her ramblings and follow the standard horror film rule of splitting up so they can be killed off more easily.

 

It’s not Camp Crystal Lake but I still wouldn’t want to wander around alone on that thing.

Our first real clue that something is decidedly off, well aside from the fact that there are no passengers or crewmembers to be found, was that of Jess discovering her own keys sitting on the floor of one of the ship’s corridors. Sally posits that they may have been dropped by the missing Heather, who somehow could have survived the storm and made it on board, but as this makes no fucking sense this mystery is ignored. Jess spots a figure and Victor rushes off to chase it down, then Jess and Greg decide to continue their search of the ship while Sally and Downey chill out in the ship’s dining room; a room that is strangely set up for a banquet consisting of more fresh food than you’d expect to find on a ghost ship. Jess and Greg checkout one of the staterooms and discover a message written in blood on a bathroom mirror that states, “Go to the theater.”

 

This is not a ringing endorsement for the arts.

Greg starts to act like a jerk, minimalizing Jess’s fears and feelings, and so she runs off on her own because that is a good idea.  When she arrives back at the dining room she find Sally and Downey missing and all the food now rotted, but before she has a chance to wonder what’s going on Victor enters, all covered in blood, and he tries to kill her.  She fights him off by aggravating a small bloody hole in the back of his head, this ends up killing him, she then flees to the theater where she encounters a freaked out Sally and Downey who are standing over a dead Greg. They tell Jess that Greg said she (Jess) shot him and before Jess has a chance to defend herself against this accusation a figure wearing a burlap mask opens fire from a balcony above. The shooter kills both Sally and Downey and then proceeds to stalk Jess through the ship until they have a showdown on the outside deck where Jess disarms the assailant while screaming, “Who are you?” but all she gets as a response is the masked figure mumbling "You have to kill them, it's the only way to get home" before falling overboard.

 

This kind of thing would never happen to Jason or Michael Myers.

Unfortunately her nightmare is far from over as barely a moment after the masked killer went overboard Jess hears yelling coming up from the ocean, and when she looks over the side she sees the overturned yacht with Greg, Sally, Downey and herself standing on it. This "new" group board the ocean liner while Jess, the survivor from the first group, becomes the unseen watcher that the original group were tracking. She is the one who dropped the keys for her earlier self to find, and she was the one to encounter Victor and is responsible for his bloody appearance as she accidentally slams his head onto a small wall hook, which is what set him off on his bloody revenge attempt that we saw earlier. Jess flees into the bowels of the ship where she finds a locker full of dozens of duplicates of the shooter's outfit, the shotgun, and numerous copies of a note in her handwriting stating “If they board kill them all.” She also drops her locket down a grate onto a pile of what appear to be dozens of exact duplicates of said locket.  This is what really cements the fact that the loop she is currently stuck in may have been going on for quite some time, but it is when Jess runs into another version of herself that things really start to go crazy.

 

“You are not me.”

I will go no further with spoilers as this a very dark and twisted in the vein of a good Twilight Zone episode, and I hope I’ve said enough to at least wet your appetite without ruining the experience.  Christopher Smith has constructed a very labyrinthine tale that though it deals with time loops is not really a science fiction story as it fits more into the genre of dark fantasy/horror, which kind of absolves some of the film's inconsistencies in its time loop element as those very same inconsistencies could be elements showing the loops more sinister nature. Triangle is also one of those films that can really benefit from a second viewing in the same vein that The Sixth Sense and The Prestige are just as good on repeated viewings; the movie works just as well when you know where the story is going because this allows you to pick up on things you missed the first time around. Triangle is a very atmospheric piece, and the director really knows how to keep the audience at the edge of their seat here, but without the stellar performance provided by Melissa George it probably wouldn’t be nearly as compelling. I don’t think there has ever been a “Final Girl” as captivating nor as complicated as the one found here and much of that is due to Melissa’s performance. I can’t recommend this film enough.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2016) - Review

If you were to look up the world “Hubris” in the dictionary one should not be surprised to find a picture of director Guy Ritchie and the poster of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword staring back at you. When I heard that this film was to be the first installment of a six picture franchise I thought it had be some kind of April Fool’s Day prank because nobody could be that stupid, but it seems that Warner Brothers were eager to get their hands on some of that fat franchise money that Marvel Studios had been making hand over fist with their cinematic universe. Then to make matters worse they spent a whopping $175 million dollars (that's not counting the millions spent on marketing) to make this film about the legendary king when the last three King Arthur movies didn't earn that much box office combined. Where the studio heads in a cocaine fueled stupor when they made this decision? Guy Ritchie’s last film The Man From U.N.C.L.E. cost $75 million to produce but only managed to bring in $45 million domestically, and yet this is the guy they wanted to start off their proposed billion dollar franchise? I wonder how man execs lost their parking spots over this colossal bomb.

 

Some spoilers await thee below.

And bomb it did, managing to only make $39 million dollars domestically, even with the foreign markets the studio still ended up losing about $150 million dollars, but what exactly went wrong?

First off was anybody really crying out for a six film epic that dealt with the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? In 2004 Antoine Fuqua’s reimagining of the King Arthur tale only managed to bring in about $52 million domestic and before that we had First Knight with Sean Connery as Arthur which took in a meager $37 million, with both of those movies getting mixed to poor reviews you be hard pressed to believe audiences were clamoring for more. You actually have to journey back to the year 1981 and John Boorman’s Excalibur to find a really good version of this classic tale and even it wasn’t universally praised at the time of its release.  So with Excalibur being the bench mark of what a good King Arthur movie, and that one only taking in $34 million dollars at the box office, you have to be pretty ballsy to spend $150 million on your version.

So Warner Brothers decided to spend an obscene amount of money on a subject matter that had a rather bad track record at the box office, they hired as their lead actor a man who has yet to prove himself as a bankable movie star, then they gave the reins to a director who hasn’t had a certifiable hit in quite some time, and exactly where did all this money go?

 

A shit load of money was clearly spent ripping off Lord of the Rings.

I myself am a big fan of the Arthurian mythology and John Boorman’s Excalibur, based heavily on Malory's Morte d'Arthur, is a fairly faithful adaptation of the legend (It is about the best take on King Arthur we’ve ever got in my opinion) yet I’ve have no real problem with a filmmaker re-interrupting these ancient stories for new generations, but what I do ask for is that the versions they give us should at least make a little sense and also not suck.

 

Also maybe avoid ripping off artist Frank Frazetta as well.

In the mid-1980s DC comics released a 12 issue limited series called Camelot 3000 which dealt with the reincarnated Knights of the Round Table as they re-emerge in an overpopulated future world of 3000 A.D. to fight off an alien invasion masterminded by Morgan Le Fay.  That was an excellent graphic novel with an interesting take on the old legends, but Guy Ritchie’s version of King Arthur will have even less bearing on the legend than that science fiction re-imagining.

 

Note to Hollywood: Make this into a movie.

There really isn’t much of the actual King Arthur legend to be found in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; we get a dude named Arthur but in this version as a child he was apparently but in a small boat to save him from being killed by his evil uncle and his little craft took him down the river to where he was found by employees of a Londinium brothel, think the story of Moses only with more prostitutes, now there is a magic sword stuck in a stone in this version but we are told that Arthur’s evil uncle Vortigern (Jude Law), who staged a palace coupe killing King Uther (Eric Bana) and his wife (Katie McGrath) after gaining dark powers from the local sea witch, needs to kill the rightful heir to the throne before he can use the power of the sword. Which is of course his missing nephew Arthur.  Thus Vortigern has his minion round up every man of age to see if they can pull the sword from the stone so that he can then kill the bastard and achieve ultimate power. If none of this seems even vaguely familiar to you it’s because not a bit of it has anything to do with the legend of King Arthur.

 

Him drawing Excalibur from the stone is about the only thing they kind of get right.

This film even opens with Uther Pendragon ruling from Camelot when bloody Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table were formed by Arthur not his dad, who in the legend was a bit of a womanizing dick and not the noble lord portrayed here by Eric Bana. I will give the movie credit for putting magic back into the Arthurian legend as I’ve grown tired of “realistic” interruptions of the myth, and even the character of Vortigern though not from the Arthurian legend, he was a 5th century warlord who may or may not have actually existed, made for a pretty compelling villain and Jude Law seemed to have fun playing the part.

 

Jude Law leaves no scenery un-chewed as Vortigern.

What I can’t stand is that Guy Ritchie gives us a reluctant hero who teams up with a bunch of rebels in the woods to harass the evil king. For one thing Arthur has never been considered a reluctant hero, a flawed king but never reluctant about fighting for the common good, and he certainly didn’t hang out in the woods with a band of misfits to give the usurper a hard time, that’s fucking Robin Hood. It’s one thing to ditch the entire story of King Arthur but then to crib from the story of Moses, Robin Hood and the visual style of Lord of the Rings kind of implies that you don’t actually have anything new or original to say.

 

I’m not sure which of these guys is supposed to be Little John.

What about Lancelot and Guinevere?  You know, the two others who with Arthur make up the tragic love triangle that destroys Camelot. They are completely missing here and one must assume that they would have eventually shown up in one of the five proposed sequels, but there absence in a story about King Arthur is really unforgivable. Go ahead and leave out Arthur’s evil bastard son Mordred and the sorceress Morgan Le Fay, ditch the whole search for the Holy Grail and I wouldn’t bat an eye, but if you cut out one of the most famous love stories in literature you’ve really fucked up. Also missing is the wizard Merlin, even though he is named checked as the Mage who forged Excalibur (which he didn't) we never get to see him in this movie.  Instead we get a young woman who is simply called The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and are told she is an acolyte of Merlin’s. Her job in this film is to be the constant deus ex machina that will save Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) from being killed on multiple occasions, she also has the ability to move her mind into and control animals which I assume she learned from watching Game of Thrones.

 

She will fight over the title of “Person of Least Charisma” with Charlie Hunnam.

Who exactly are the Mages? In the opening prologue we learn that “For Centuries Man & Mage Lived Side By Side In Peace. Until The Rise Of The Mage Sorcerer Mordred. Turning His Dark Ambitions Against Man.” Is it just me or is the term “Mage Sorcerer” a tad redundant? Also the use of the name Mordred here has nothing to do with the evil little shit from the legend who was sired by Arthur when the king accidentally fucked his half-sister (Doesn’t the original story sound so much more interesting?) but instead Mordred is a generic evil sorcerer who dies pathetically in the opening act when he is unceremoniously killed by King Uther.

 

Mordred doesn’t even get a single word of dialog.

The film’s basic plot is that Vortigern was jealous of his brother so he convinced Mordred to rebel against humanity, when that fails Vortigern sacrifices his wife to a sea witch to get temporarily turned into Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer so that he can kill Uther.  He then needs to build this “Dark Tower” so that once its completed he will become untouchable some how. Young Arthur escapes and remains a loose thread in Vortigern’s evil plans because he is the rightful heir to the power of Excalibur. While Vortigern builds his tower Arthur is raised in a brothel where he is taught martial arts by an Asian dude named George (Tom Wu) and over time he forms a group of low level criminals to make a bit of cash.

 

We may not get Merlin in this movie but we do get a martial arts master.

I’m not sure what kind of movie Guy Ritchie was trying to make here but his blend of hyper editing and trademark zippy flashback techniques may have worked fine in films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and even to some extent his first Sherlock Holmes movie, but here they are too jarring and out of place.  The movie is also set to an annoyingly overdone score by composer Daniel Pemberton that seems to want to beat the viewer into submission.  The final crippling blow to the film was in the casting of charisma vacuum Charlie Hunnam as Arthur. He may have been great as the protagonist on television’s Sons of Anarchy but the few times I’ve seen him on the big screen have been less than impressive.  In Pacific Rim almost every scene he had was stolen by the relatively unknown Rinko Kikuchi, and in Crimson Peak his bland boyfriend part is completely forgettable.

 

This is our Once and Future King? *sigh*

With King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Guy Ritchie tried something new, and I will give him credit for at least putting magic back into the story when others have abandoned it for the sake of realism, but at no point did I find myself invested in any of the characters or what they were trying to achieve. At one point Vortigern needs the "Demon Knight" power again and to get it he must sacrifice someone he loves to the Sea Witch, but with his wife already sacrificed the first time he needed the power he is now forced to kill his daughter. It’s clear that this is supposed to be a powerful scene but as we’ve had almost no screen time with the woman, nor learned anything about her, the film hasn’t earned this moment and so we really don’t care when she gets stabbed by dear ole dad. That is the real key flaw to this film, we are never given a reason to care about any of these characters and when your film is about good versus evil you kind of need the audience to be rooting for the good guys.

Final Thoughts:

• If Vortigern needs Arthur dead to claim Excalibur why not order his soldiers to immediately kill anyone who draws the sword from the stone?
• Vortigern’s soldiers look to be cosplaying medieval Jason Voorhees.
• Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish from Game of Thrones joins Arthur.
• Arthur has to fight Rodents of Unusual Size.
• We have Viking slavers in this film, because?
• The Round Table gag at the end of the movie is ridiculously lame.

 

It’s a fucking table you bunch of gits!

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Deadly Tower (1975) - Review

Over the years Kurt Russell has played some very dangerous characters; the anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape from New York, the suicidal Captain O’Neil from Stargate, and the psychotic Stuntman Mike from Tarantino’s Death Proof, so it’s almost hard to believe that for the first half of his career he was mostly known for playing lovable goofballs in various comedies. It should also be noted that Russell is one of those rare actors who managed to survive the transition from child star to adult actor as well as overcome the label of being a “Disney Kid” that he earned while under his ten year contract with the studio. Which brings us to today’s topic The Deadly Tower, where Kurt Russell plays real life crazed sniper Charles Whitman, which was about the biggest departure from his typical fare as one could get.


It must have really caught some people off guard back in 1975 when they went out to see Disney’s The World’s Strongest Man, where Kurt Russell played the charismatic college goofball Dexter Riley, and then upon arriving home turned on NBC’s movie of the week to see Russell playing the clean cut sniper who took the lives 15 people, wounding 31 others, during his rampage in the movie of the week The Deadly Tower. If there is a better example of an actor trying to break free from typecasting I can’t think of it.

 

Dexter Riley

 

Charles Whitman

The Deadly Tower follows the true story of crazed sniper Charles Whitman (Kurt Russell) who on the fateful day of August 1st 1966 orchestrated 96 minutes of terror from atop the tower of The University of Texas and of police officer Ramiro Martinez (Richard Yniguez) the man who ended that reign of terror. The movie opens with a title explaining “Both the character and personality of Ramiro Martinez’s wife and certain scenes about the Martinez family have been fictionalized for dramatic effect” which is to be expected as this movie is an NBC docudrama not a Sixty Minutes documentary. Now some of the changes made I understand as one has to expect a little verging from the truth to make the story more palatable to the viewing public but some of the alterations are a little odd; such as when in the movie Charles Whitman entered the reception area to the observation deck he encounters the receptionist and nicely pushes her into the elevator telling her, “You go on down. Don’t come back if you value your life.” But what actually happened is that Whitman knocked her to the floor and split the back of her skull with the butt of his rifle, she did not survive. Later in the film we see him brutally open on fire a family of tourists that were heading up to the observation deck killing two of them and injuring two others.  Why fabricate a moment of him sparring someone and then show him coldly murder some people mere minutes later?


Why the movie would illustrate him showing mercy to the receptionist is a bit of a mystery here, maybe it was a strange way to attempt to humanize Whitman, but being by this point in the film we’d already seen him murder his mother and his wife I’m not sure that was possible. One could consider Charles Whitman as a tragic figure if you take a look at the letter he left behind stating that he wanted his body to be autopsied as he believed something was medically wrong him, but even though a tumor was later discovered doctors have debated over whether it was the cause of Whitman’s violent actions that day.

The movie tries to dance around several hot button issues with mental health being only one of them; early in the film we see Martinez being passed over for promotion and it is clearly implied that this was because he was of Mexican ethnicity.  Lieutenant Lee (Pernell Roberts) expresses this belief to Captain Fred Ambrose (Clifton James), stating that Martinez deserves the promotion, but Captain Racist won’t hear of it. Casting Clifton James in this part, an actor most known for playing redneck law enforcement officers, is obvious shorthand in depicting racism in the Texas police department.


The film of course also deals with gun rights and as this horrible event took place in Texas we do see a lot of civilians running around with guns, but the film tries to dance around which side of the issue the filmmakers support; when Martinez arrives on the scene he is confused as to where all these civilians with guns came from, and then when he runs into a fellow officer who explains that they can’t touch the sniper with the “pop guns” they’ve been issued.  It's pretty clear that Network television was not too keen on taking sides on such a volatile topic.

 
Note: The shooting spree in this film is credited in helping trigger the creation of SWAT teams.

Then in a character that seems like a cross between screen time padding and a bleeding heart liberal we get Lt. Elwood Forbes (John Forsythe) who runs around trying to identify who exactly the man in the tower is, hoping that if he could locate a loved one they could help talk the guy down and thus take him alive.  All this despite his fellow officers seemingly more concerned with stopping the shooting spree rather than worrying about who is doing the shooting. There is an especially telling scene where Forbes tracks down the gun store where Whitman purchased many of his guns and much of his ammunition, he confronts the clerk and gives him a hard time even though selling those guns and rifles to Whitman was completely within the law, and after Forbes gets the identity of the sniper from the clerk the poor man asks, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Lieutenant?” and Forbes responds, “Yeah, you know there were a lot of people killed out there this morning, my friend, you think about that.” What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I’m one who believes the United States needs a complete revamping of their gun laws but laying a guilt trip on a gun store clerk like this is just ridiculous and I doubt ever happened.

 

“Hi, I will be your Hollywood Liberal spokesperson today.”

The events of The Deadly Tower are grim and brutal yet were fairly depicted for a 1970s television movie, the cast is full of well-known television and movie actors, with Ned Beatty popping up as a civilian that joins the police on their run up the tower to stop Whitman, but most of all it's Kurt Russell who stands out with his depiction of a character that no one could ever truly understand. He does a lot here with very little dialog.  It just took John Carpenter to show the world what a super star he was.


Director Jerry Jameson wisely never glamorizes any of the action, and despite censors keeping the blood to a minimum the film’s 95 minute running time just oozes with dread and tension, and I bet The Deadly Tower would have made a decent splash at the box office if it had been released theatrically. The biggest surprise here is that aside from some pop culture references in movies such as Full Metal Jacket and Natural Born Killers this story doesn’t get much play in the media, that all this event really got was this one television movie seems rather odd, and with gun violence exploding across America I’d say a retelling of this story is well overdue.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Jumper (2008) From Book to Screen

Adapting a popular novel is never going to be easy, the difference in mediums is too great for there ever to be a perfect translation from book to screen, but in the case of the 2008 adaptation of Steven Gould’s young adult book Jumper they didn’t even try. Now some times straying from the source material can still lead to an excellent movie, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is considerably better than Peter Benchley’s book, but sadly that is not the case here. This movie is pretty much a name only version of Gould’s book as it creates its own complete backstory and mythology while also completely jettisoning the plot of the book, but exactly how far do they go off book?

Director Dough Liman has stated that, “The script that I read from David Goyer was so fresh and got me immediately interested in the movie but when you take a book and turn it into a movie I’m really someone who believes in throwing the whole thing out and reinventing it as a movie, and in this particular case there was a villain in David Goyer’s script that dealt with terrorism and it got a little conventional for my tastes.”

So he loved the book, he liked Goyer’s script, but then ditched everything because you know…reasons.

The basic premise of both the book and the movie is that there is a young man who unexpectedly discovers the ability to teleport but beyond that the two diverge rather wildly. In the book seventeen year old David Rice lives with his abusive alcoholic father, his mother having fled when he was twelve, and then one night his father is about to take the belt to him“You promised not to use the buckle” David suddenly finds himself in the school library. He assumes that he must have blacked out and somehow made his to the library, so he decides to not return home but instead run away. While on the road he is offered a ride by a trucker who takes Davey to a secluded spot so he and his friends can rape him, and then once again Davey finds himself suddenly inside his school library, the one place he’s always felt safe.

In the movie fifteen year old David (Max Thieriot) gives a snow globe to Millie (Annasophia Robb), the girl he has a crush on, but then school bully Mark (Jesse James) grabs the snow globe and chucks it out onto the ice of the nearby river. Idiot David goes out onto the ice to retrieve the snow globe and of course end up crashing through the fragile ice, but instead of an icy death David finds himself in the public library (along with a good portion of icy water). In the book these appearances in the library take place while it’s closed but in the movie it is during open hours where surprisingly no one seems taken aback by a person magically showing up in massive splash of water.

 

He doesn’t even get a “Shhh!” from the librarian.

David arrives home soaking wet, where he encounters his angry father (Michael Rooker), who yells at his son for not responding to his questions and tracking water all over the floor. Gone is the physical abuse from the book instead we get a character who is at most a bit of a jerk and possibly a bit of a drinker. I guess the filmmakers didn’t want to get into such intense subject matter as their film was basically a superhero movie while the book had teleportation as analogy for escape. We certainly wouldn’t want something as off-putting as parental abuse and rape in your summer blockbuster. The movie is basically a boys wish fulfillment fantasy, he runs off to New York and after a brief teleportation training montage he almost immediately decides to rob a bank, stating in the voice over, “I was fifteen, come on, what would you have done?”

 

“Eat your heart out Butch and Sundance.”

In the book David spends days trying to find work but because he fled home without a Birth Certificate and has no GED or Social Insurance Number he is unable to find employment so robbery seems like his only option, that is unless he wants to end up living on the street. He also only robs one bank by teleporting into the vault while in the movie it’s clear he has done this multiple times, and because movie David is an entitled arrogant douchebag he leaves I.O.U notes behind even though he has no intention of ever honoring them. What a dick.

In the book he never returns the stolen money to the banks but he does end up earning money with his powers and later he gives that same amount of money that he stole to numerous charities. This is not a character trait you will find in the movie version.  Things only get worse when David grows up and is replaced by actor Hayden Christensen who brings unparalleled levels of smugness to the character. In one particularly bizarre scene David is watching the news on television, from his plush and swank penthouse suite, where a reporter covering a flood talks about people who are trapped by the raging waters, “The question now Pat, is what will happen to these people? It would take a miracle to get to them.” That seems like a perfect set up for David to use his powers for good, so does our hero teleport in so as to save the lives of those poor people? No, of course not, that’s not the kind of hero we’re dealing with.

 

“I’d go but the Saved By The Bell marathon is about to start.”

Now book David isn’t rushing off to fight crime as there is no time jump to bring in an older more bankable actor to player David, instead he remains a seventeen year old kid alone in New York trying to figure shit out. He spends his time setting up a nice apartment, researching the possibility that there are other Jumpers out there, and teleporting into Broadway shows because why not. It’s during an intermission of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that he first meets the love of his life Millie, she’s a college girl visiting New York City and not a girl he had a crush from his hometown as portrayed in the movie. The book goes into detail on their relationship; with Millie being hesitant about dating a younger man and David pointing out that if their ages were reversed nobody would have a problem with it.  She is even more uncomfortable when he gives her expensive gifts and flies across the country (he actually teleports but he can't exactly tell her that) to visit her in college as she feels this puts pressures her into have sex with him.

In the movie David pops back to his hometown, after being gone for eight years, finds Millie at the bar she works at, and then he asks her if she would like to go to Rome with him because he remembers she had a thing for traveling. Not being a woman I’m not exactly sure what my reaction would be to this but I’d like to think it would be something along the lines of “Are you fucking crazy?” But Millie, now being played by Rachel Bilson, thinks this is just awesome and ten hours later they are fucking in their hotel room in Rome.

 

Isn’t entitled sex the best sex ever?

The movie version of Millie is bloody awful as she has almost no character development and serves mostly to be a damsel in distress, and when she learns that his “banking interests” is actually bank robbing she seems more put out that he lied to her and not the fact that he is a bloody bank robber. Millie in the book falls in love with David over time, not due to a trip to Rome, and she does break up with him when she discovers that he has been lying to her about certain things.  A cop who David ratted on for beating his wife starts investigating him and when he contacts Millie she then starts to figure there is more going on with David than she realizes, but they eventually reconcile because they do truly love each other. While movie version of Millie I can see no reason for her to be hanging around with David by the end of the film, all he does in the movie is lie to her, has sex with her once, and he puts her in constant danger. And just what are the dangers?

The dangers that David and Millie face are easily the biggest changes from book to movie; in Steven Gould’s book David eventually reconnects with his mother, learning that she fled after being beaten so badly that her faced needed reconstructive surgery, but just when things were looking great life takes a big dump on David when terrorist hijack a plane his mother was on and she is killed.  David goes on a one man war on terrosion in his mission to find the one responsible for his mother's death, teleporting into hostage situations, grabbing the hijackers and teleporting them out to be dropped in a pit located in middle of the desert

 Note: The pit does have water at the bottom and a small island so David isn’t a murdering vigilante, though one terrorist dies when his suicide vest goes off when David drops him.

It’s these very public acts of teleportation that draw the eye of the NSA and they begin to hunt David. When the NSA discover who he is they learn about Millie and take her into custody in the hopes of using her to squeeze cooperation out of David, but instead he starts snatching and teleporting their agents to random spots all over the globe. Eventually David and the NSA reach a détente with them releasing Millie and David agreeing to occasionally help the government with such things as extractions and the like. This is the element of the book that Doug Liman found to conventional, so what did he replace it with?

 

Samuel “Motherfucking “Jackson, that's what.

Gone are those pesky terrorist who have become so blasé and in place of them we get the Paladins, a group of religious extremists who have been tracking down and killing Jumpers over the centuries. The reasoning for this is that they believe only God should have the power to be anywhere at once thus a Jumpers very existence is blasphemous. The head Paladin is Roland (Samuel Jackson) who at one point explains to David that all Jumpers eventually go bad and so they must be killed for the betterment of mankind.  David tries to explain to Roland that he is different and that he wouldn’t hurt anybody (David apparently  believing bank robbery to be one of those victimless crimes). The problem with this is that we only see three Jumpers in this movie; a guy we don't know being hunted and brutally murdered by the Paladins in a jungle, Griffin (Jamie Bell) a Jumper who saw his parents murdered by Paladins when he was five and now hunts them down himself, and lastly there is David who even though he robs the occasional bank and picnics on the Sphinx he’s not really supervillain material. So from this we are to take it that the Paladins are an evil extremis organization, that they were part of the Inquisition and the witch hunts certainly bares that point out, but then we learn that David’s mom (Diane Lane) is also a Paladin and that changes everything. Apparently when David was five he teleported and her only one choice was to either kill her own son or leave.

Wow, let’s unpack that little revelation:

• Mary Rice is a Paladin, a member of a super religious secret society, but she lives with alcoholic Michael Rooker in Anne Arbor.
• We must assume Jumpers are rare or the world would know about them yet a member of the Paladins gives birth to one. What are the odds on that happening?
• Roland doesn’t know that his co-worker Mary Rice is David Rice’s mother until he visits David’s homestead and sees a picture of Mary on the mantelpiece.  So I guess ancient religious organizations don't do background checks?
• Did Mary keep her family life secret from the Paladins? If so why? Until her child revealed himself to be a Jumper she’d have had no reason to.
• Mary uses her position within the Paladins to help her son escape their clutches.  I guess she still has a soft spot for the son she abandoned?
• When David confronts his mother at the end of the movie she offers him a “Head start” because she does still love him. So she still plans on hunting and killing her son because he is a blasphemous Jumper and an affront to God?  Her idea of love is giving him a fighting chance?  I hope she doesn't expect a Mother's Day card anytime soon.

So Doug Liman and company took a character who originally was a woman that had to abandon her son to save her own life, feeling horribly guilty for this act ever since, and who once finally reconnecting with her son is violently taken away from him by an act of terrorism, and the movie turned that poignant and tragic character into a flip-flopping villain with no clear motivation. Yeah Doug, I’d say that’s unconventional but also incredibly stupid.

 

“My son is a Jumper and my daughter is dating a vampire.”

Director Doug Liman and screenwriter Simon Kinberg had hoped this movie would be successful, having planned out two sequels, but in doing so and getting caught up in all this bullshit Paladin mythology they forgot to make a cohesive movie. None of the characters are remotely likable, Jamie Bell’s Griffin comes closest to being likable until he out of the blue decides to sacrifice David’s girlfriend so that he can blow up some Paladins, and the teleporting science of this movie is as inconsistent as it is moronic.

Neither the book nor the movie explain why or how there are Jumpers yet in the book we at least learn that David is basically opening up a "David shaped doorway" which moves around him as he passes though.  This why there is no "Bamf" or pop of displaced air when he teleports. In the movie David sometimes teleports as if he is just simply vanishing into thin air but at other times his teleports destroy his surroundings.  Is this caused by him being emotionally distressed when jumping? When dealing with a fantastic story element it is important to set rules and remain consistent, this movie fails miserably at this.  It’s also never explained as to how Griffin was able stalk David across the globe. In the early part of the movie we spot Jaimie Bell hanging around watching David but we never learn how he was tipped off to David being a Jumper in the first place or how he can keep tabs on him.

 

Maybe he thought he was cute and just randomly decided to stalk him.

I don't see why anyone would stalk David as not only is he an insufferable git he also isn’t too bright; when Roland first tries to capture David in his penthouse apartment what does our supposed hero do? Well he heads home so that he can hit on his high school crush from eight years ago. That's just brilliant, that is.  I hate to Monday morning quarterback but If Samuel Jackson was to show up at my apartment I’d probably chose anywhere on the planet other than my old home town to run to. Not only does this increase the odds of you being tracked down but you also put those you supposedly love in jeopardy. And to cement the fact that David is a colossal moron he almost immediately gets into a fight with his old high school bully and his answer to this confrontation is to teleport the jerk into a bank vault he previously robbed.  Way to announce to the world your teleportation ability and also tip off the villains as to where you are.  He also just handed his hunters a key witness, that's genius tactical thinking that is.

 

“He lives in Anne Arbor, his dad is a drunk and he’s dating a girl named Millie.”

Now in the book there was a scene where David did visit his hometown, with of course no one hunting him at the time, and at a house party a jealous boyfriend attacks David for talking to his girl (not Millie just a girl he knew from high school), and while fighting in a dark room David teleports the drunken idiot to the airport at the edge of town and leaves him there. No one believes the guy when he later claims to have been abducted by aliens. David in the book is smart, he never teleports where he can be seen, and he certainly would never have broken into the Coliseum in Rome to impress a girl as movie David does in the movie.

 

I’m sure no tourist or security guards will notice him up there either.

In the books David can only teleport people, or things that he can lift, while in the movie Griffin reveals that if something is in motion it doesn’t matter how big it is he can teleport it. This leads to visually stunning scenes where cars and buses fly through the air against all sense of logic or physics. I don’t think a filmmaker should necessarily be restricted by the rules put in place by the author but if you are going to change something so drastically it’s best if you have a better reason for doing so than “It looks cool.”

Doug Liman states that, “This is a hundred percent Steven Gould story, just reinvented for a movie” and by that he means he and Kinberg butchered it beyond recognition and then pissed on its remains. Not only is this “adapting” the book a crying shame but completely unnecessary; they didn't need Gould's book to make a movie about a guy who can teleport, as that certainly isn’t an original concept, and the changes they made from book are so drastic that they could have simply changed the character names and called the movie “Teleporter” and not have had to pay the author a dime. Sure the book has a notable fan base, and Hollywood is all about name recognition, but in this case I believe all parties would have been better off cutting ties and doing their own thing.  Well Steven Gould would have lost a paycheck so I guess he would have missed out on that.

Note: Doug Liman is returning to the world of Jumper but instead of movie sequels this will be shown on You Tube Red and will be based on the third novel of the series, Impulse, which follows David and Millie’s daughter, Cent, who inherited her father’s ability to “jump.”