Sunday, March 31, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

2013, d. Jon M. Chu
[So my original post got bollocksed up, a grand masterpiece covering 30 years of GI Joe culture, gone and lost forever.  So, instead of 20 immaculately constructed, brilliantly reasoned, perfectly spelled, grammatically correct paragraphs, you get this less eloquent, half-sized assembly of thoughts about the movie.]

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is an authentically awful movie.  It comes by it's lack of grandeur honestly, as it is a true successor to the works of Buzz Dixon, Ron Friedman and the other writers of the Marvel Productions cartoon of the 1980s, as well as Larry Hama's impressive decade long run on the series with Marvel Comics.   

The primary impetus for these source materials was, without a doubt, to sell toys.  The comics and cartoons featured on-model representations of the characters, vehicles and playsets found on toy shelves and in toy chests all over the world, much to the delight of the children who play with them.  To think there's not any creative or artistic merit to stories crafted out of a set of action figures is a cynical position to take.  Action figures are, inherently, a vehicle for storytelling, a ferry for children's imaginations.  Kids will do what they will with the action figures they have, but they also love to see their toys come to life (see Toy Story's enduring popularity for example) and how they act and behave without their guidance.  

The cartoon was richly detailed and wonderfully animated, in such a regard that visually it holds up well today.  It often featured multi-part arcs to convey that the threat Cobra presented wasn't always so easily overcome.  The episodes were primarily story-driven, so the characters were rather broadly constructed, their personalities driven more by the voice cast than any character-expanding stories.  Due to FCC regulations, violence had to be, well, non-violent, so all bullets and ballistics were converted to lazers, and despite frequent spectacular fire fights and exploding vehicles, nobody died.  It was always a Cobra versus Joes affair, both sides seeming somewhat buffoonish overall.  It was in the comic books that Larry Hama worked in a hard military angle (he addressed military rank frequently and used military jargon and acronyms which were helpfully explained in footnotes), provided stories that were character-driven as often as story-driven, worked in martial arts philosophies, and dabbled in simplified politics.  And characters died, often noble, often senseless deaths. Hama's took a more serious approach to his storytelling, but also seemed to understand that there was something inherently goofy to the whole situation, and would just as often play into as well. In both cases, the comics and cartoon played into the concept that the toys set up, that each Joe has a specialty, and thus they frequently featured large casts.  

The first film, by Stephen Sommers was a train wreck.  Ugly and incoherent, but also unaware of what the characters were supposed to be all about.  The film presented spectacle but it wasn't good, and it was disingenuous to the G.I. Joe brand.  Retaliation acts as more of a reboot as well as a sequel, fully aware that the "hyper-suits" (or whatever they were called) and other ideas of the first film were not authentic to the Joe experience.  Despite the sometimes drastic difference in the presentation of the characters between the comic and cartoon, there was a consistency between them that fell right in line with the toy brand.  Retaliation is many broad steps forward to finding that same consistency that the first film ignored in favour of trying to "modernize" (or "futurize") its military fighting force.

Retaliation brings back the idea that the Joes are soldiers, and hits the military angle hard (well as hard as a movie based on action figures will support, in line with Hama's portrayal of them).  Channing Tatum's Duke returns as the commanding officer, and Tatum has developed considerable screen presence since the first film.  I mercifully don't recall much about "The Rise of Cobra" save for the general impression of its awfulness and Tatum's decided lack of charisma.  Here he's loose and leading charming, matching the always enjoyable Dwayne Johnson.  Tatum and Johnson have considerable chemistry, and the film spends time building their close relationship, only to take it away as the catalyst for the titular "retaliation", as nearly the entire Joe platoon is massacred.  (Johnson and Tatum should most certainly appear together in another vehicle).

The story that plays out could have appeared in either the cartoon or the comics (but is original to the film), which Joe faithful will certainly appreciate.  Zartan is masquerading as the president, and with patience has executed Cobra Commander's scheme to destroy the Joes, take control of the country and potentially destroy the world.  Meanwhile, a story straight out of the comics, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow bury the hatchet when they learn that it wasn't Storm but Zartan that killed their master years ago.  

Like the cartoon, the characters in the film are pretty flimsy.  While Snake Eyes was a star in the comics (the central figure in the title in its later years) where others can speak for him and his physicality can be placed in more focus, be more pronounced or exaggerated, he doesn't work so well as a feature player in motion.  As such, the B-plot is more Storm Shadow than Snake Eyes focussed and even then it feels disconnected and slight.  Still it does result in one of the most engaging and inspired action sequences I've seen, in which Snake Eyes and Jinx (Storm Shadow's cousin) square off against a seemingly neverending swarm of ninja while tethered to a mountainside.  It would have had even greater impact if we were more invested in the characters and their situation.

The trio of Roadblock, Lady Jaye and Flint are the sole survivors of the assault on the Joes and they lead the remainder of the film.  Johnson's charisma carries much of the film, though Roadblock has no real arc (only Storm Shadow truly has anything approximating a character arc).  Adrianne Palicki (who played Wonder Woman in a failed pilot recently) succeeds at being tough as Lady Jaye , but is too often undermined by having to play sexy.  D.J. Cotrona is Flint, a perfunctory character without purpose or definition.  Bruce Willis stubs in as the original G.I. Joe, Joe Colton, another flimsily assembled character who seems to be in the film because they could get Bruce Willis.

The bad guys consist of Jonathan Pryce in the dual role of the President and Zartan-as-the-President and he seems to be truly enjoying himself.  Both roles are steeped in cliches but Pryce's zeal goes a long way to making it entertaining.  Ray Stevenson as Firefly does most of the physical legwork in the bad guy department, but he's impressive and imposing, even if his cajun accent barely holds for a few minutes.  Cobra Commander finally appears like Cobra Commander should appear.  He's serves no other purpose than as a figurehead, and looks the part.

There's plenty of cool vehicles in the film, HISS tanks and Raptors and Rippers and Fangboats... the vehicles were about the only thing the first film got right, and it's nice to see them in action here, if only minimally (there's more focus on gunplay and physical fighting).   There's one land battle sequence with the vehicles and another boat fight, both happening in quick succession, inter-cut with a half dozen other gun fights, and it's endemic of the film's problem.  Watching a lot of Bond films recently, it's apparent that the key to their success is the fact that they let the action sequences breathe, stand on their own.  They become more memorable as an island than a part of the landscape, but you have to have plenty of meaningful plot and/or character to focus on between the action scenes, which is what Retaliation lacks.

In rating the quality of the film you have to contextualize it three ways.  The first is against it's predecessor, "The Rise Of Cobra", and in comparison it's a triumph.  The second is judging it against the beloved cartoons and comics from the property's heyday.  Retaliation is as readable or watchable as the comic and cartoon remain.  It's a kitschy '80's sensibility with a modern budget.  It's literally toys come to life and there's something delightful about it.  However, it's comparing retaliation against the standards of quality in cinema where Retaliation fails big time.  It's not a good movie.  Like a carnival ride, Retaliation provides momentary entertainment, but there's not a lot to think about beyond the initial experience.  Joe fans will celebrate this film, just as I'm sure the film will likewise create new Joe fans (it's violent, but moderately so for interested kids 10+).  And it will sell some toys.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Double Oh...13: Octopussy (1983)

d. John Glen

Octopussy preamble: Well... ugh?  This was the first James Bond film, I'm pretty sure, to be made into a video game.  I certainly remember the advertisements for the video game prominently displayed in comic books of the time.  Octopussy, and it's risque-sounding title, has been embedded in the public consciousness since the film debuted, and generally referred to in a derogatory way, as if to say it's a franchise low and the height of ridiculousness in Bond (particularly in Roger Moore's oeuvre, which has no shortage of ridiculousness) and that's not far off.  It came out in competition with Never Say Never Again and even though it's not official, I think I'd prefer to see the latter.

Villains: Ugh, here we go
- Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) is an Afghan prince in exile.  He's got gobs of money, a thirst for competition (gabmling) and is a renowned sportsman (of the hunting kind, not ball-playing).  You can bet that, at one point, he hunts Bond for sport, on elephant-back no less.
- General Orlov is renegade in the Soviet military.  He has grand plans on how Russia can dominate much of Europe, bringing it's filthy communist and socialist practices across half the globe.  Of course, the coalition of communism seemed to think these tactics would be inviting major retaliation from the US, so they shoot it down.  Orlov has other plans, funding his own communist revolution by selling off fakes of many of Russias treasures, using a traveling circus to aide in his smuggling and terrrorism.  He has a good plan conceptually, but exceptionally convoluted in the execution.
- Turban guy, Gobinda.  He's a mammoth of a man.  Not as freakish as Jaws, but very brawny.  Like Jaws, though he's exceptionally tough and strong (though not superhumanly so).
- Sawblade guy ("Thug with Yo-yo"), he's not even given a proper name, but he has this really funky (and as far fetched as Oddjob's bowler) yo-yo that's a giant saw blade.  I serious doubt it would do any real damage in real life (though it would probably not feel nice if you got hit with it).
- Mishka und Grishka are the carnie knife twins.  They're a throwing act who have expert skills with knives.  They're kind of small, and quite one-trick, so they're never much of a threat.

Bond Girls: There's two main Bond girls, Octopussy (Maud Adams back in her second Bond girl role) and Magda (Kristina Wayborn).  Octopussy is a smuggler (not the first, and not the last Bond will get with) in league with Khan and is also a circus owner/operator/performer.  She's wowed by the money and the Russian trinkets passing through her hands, completely unaware of the intent behind the smuggling.  She has a past with Bond, in that her father was a rogue MI-6 agent, and Bond was tasked to bring him in, but wound up killing him in the process.  Strangely, Octopussy doesn't hate him and seems to have had a long-time crush/fascination with him.  But, overall, there's very little to Octopussy, particularly for a main character, there's certainly no personality and dull chemistry between her and Moore.
   Magda is one of Octopussy's girls (the bulk of Octopussy's circus are girls), she's seen early on paired with Kamal Khan, leading one to think they're together, and there's a bit of a fake-out when Bond encouter's Octopussy's girls, thinking at first it's Kahn's harem.  When Bond makes Kahn aware that he has the original Faberge Egg, Magda allows herself to be seduced, sleeps with Bond and takes the egg (a very Bond thing to do), escaping out the balcony window in an acrobatic twirl of cloth.   One can tell later that Magda isn't all that taken with Bond.
   After learning that Khan betrayed her, all of Octopussy's girls mount a major assault on Khan's palace, doing lots of flipping and acrobatics, very little of which looks particularly threatening.  Of James Bond raid sequences this is the weakest of the lot.  Very cheap looking.  It starts off kind of empowering, watching these karate-chopping, high-kicking, cartwheeling women unconvincingly bust up some of Khan's goons, but then Octopussy gets captured and Bond and Q (!?) have to save the day in a hot air balloon (what?).  So much for empowerment.

Credits/Theme: Rita Coolidge sings "All Time High" over some of the cheesiest opening credits of the series.  I don't know what this era of Bond's obsession with trampolines is, but how many is this in a row now where the silhouettes are bouncing into the air?  The women are out of silhouettes in this one frequently, leading to some blatant nipple exposure (which I guess is why it's not on youtube?).  Somehow taking the women out of silhouette greatly reduces the sexiness and ups the cheese factor, mostly by having them smile and react to the lazers tracing across their bodies.  The lazers were perhaps at the time very advanced, but they look really corny now.
As for "All Time High", I don't hate it, but it's rather bland.

Bond: In the cold open, Bond once again fails at his infiltration.  I'm sensing a pattern here, that Bond doesn't really care about having or maintaining a cover.  Bond shows off some slight-of-hand capabilities, as he swaps out the recovered fake Faberge egg (he also shows off his expert eye, as he spits off his knowledge of Russian dynasty heirlooms, and spies the egg is a fake) for the real one during the auction (it shocked me that the auctioneers would allow them to handle the merchandise).  Bond's letching seems really gross in this one as he still thinks he's quite the Lothario.  I imagine the younger women of Octopussy's gang find him kind of unsettling.  At one point Octopussy offers James a job with her, but he affirms that he's a company man.

Movie: This is really one of the worst of the lot.  In a fruitless bid to try and hone in on Indiana Jones territory, Bond goes to India, fights on top of trains, eats a sheep's face, and searches for treasure (at least initially). It's overly convoluted in a thoroughly unpleasant way, to the point that one doesn't really care at all about the intricacies of its story.  The script lays the double-entendres on thick and sloppy, they're overall not very creative and Moore delivers most of them with an eye roll.  It's shocking how director John Glen can come off of one of the smartest of the Bond films and go right to the dumbest.  The circus/carnival motif is something that has appeared a few times throughout the Bond films, I wonder what that association is all about.  There have been a lot of painful, groan-inducing moments in Moore's Bond repertoire, but I think the swinging on the vines with the Tarzan jungle call is about as bad as they get.  That Bond also wastes precious minutes applying a clown costume and clown make-up then must stumble through a circus crowd seems more stupid than inventive.  Surely Bond, number one secret agent guy, can think of a better way to get into a circus tent than floppy shoes, especially since, as we've established, he's the goddamn worst at infiltrating. 

Q-gadgets: there's a mini jet plane hiding in a horse trailer that ejects out of the back end of a horse. (Blue screening in the flying sequence is some of the best in the series but then some of the worst later on).  In Q's lair, there's some Indian-themed apparatus, like a killer door, and a climbing rope that comes out of a snake charming basket.
Bond is given a fountain pen that contains a bug & receiver & metal dissolving acid in a pen
In very progressive thinking, Bond's wristwatch has LCD color TV in it
Bond infiltrates Khan's palace via a crocodile-shaped submersible (and later appears to be eaten by it when he escapes).

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.2 (it really is one of, if not the worst Bond movie.  The gauntlet has been thrown down, Die Another Day)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Sinister

2012, Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still)

If you really don't want to know the twists and turns of this movie that any horror fan will see a mile away, beware spoilage below.

Yes, he did the Keanu version, not the original.  This time round, Derrickson is doing another found footage movie, but no, not that kind... it actually has found footage and it plays as much a character as the family in jeopardy.  Ethan Hawke, the washed up writer, has moved his willfully oblivious family into the home where, not so long ago, an entire family was murdered in their own back yard.  Stupid huh?  Not the plot, the writer.  It sets the desperate tone for Hawke's Oswalt.  He needs this true crime book to be successful, no matter the danger to his family or his own life. With whiskey fueled stupidity he watches previous family murders, left for him to consume.

We start with the assumption that the killer is manipulating Oswalt.  We are not wrong.  But its not a serial killer who plays with the minds of his next victim before slaughtering them along with their family.  No, based on the black metal character hiding in the shadows of the 8mm film, its a boogie man.  And not just any boogie man, but the original Babylonian demon god, consumer of children and apparently fan of bad heavy metal.  Bughuul needs the souls of children willing to kill their family and while he is playing with Oswalt, Boogie is also manipulating his daughter to be the next star of his films. And maybe if Oswalt hadn't been down downing bottle after bottle and revealed a bit more of his suspicions, he might not be recorded for the potential sequel.

But despite some downright creepy spirit filled scenes meant entirely for us, not so much as eliciting a raised hackle in the protagonist, this was a scream at the screen by the numbers stupid actions horror movie.  Turn on some fucking lights !!  Seriously, if I ever buy a creepy 70s ranch or Victorian mansion, I am installing giant halogen lights all on a single switch.  One creepy sound and FLASH no shadows left anywhere, not in the basement, not in the attic.  And just to contradict myself entirely, I rather enjoyed it all.  It could have been a plot line from the show Supernatural, if any heroes had been present, perhaps a good idea for the sequel in which Opie the deputy sheriff figures out what happened and is stopping the next film from being produced.  Add in a flashie magic dagger to kill Boogie and we will be good.

3 Short Paragraphs: The Punisher

2004, Jonathan Hensleigh (Kill the Irishman) -- Netflix

Yes, I never saw this in the decade since it was released.  But seriously, considering the shameful initial entry of this comic book based franchise, can you blame me?  But despite the litany of good reviews from fellow comic book readers, I was not swayed.  I was soured and to be honest, not a great fan of the original comic book anti-hero.  I liked him much more as the four colour enemy of Spiderman, in his minimal super villain outfit and a vast array of weaponry that didn't include death rays or super powers.  But his later more edgy life seemed dependant on creating a character meant to be adapted for the big screen.  And then Dirty Laundy came out (scroll down), the short fanfilm that really shows Thomas Jayne's affection for the character and his ability to live the character.  I felt honour bound to see the original portrayal.

Rebooting the origin story again, we get Frank Castle, an effective FBI agent doing his last job before retirement to an idyllic life with his family.  During that last undercover job, one of the lowlifes is killed.  That lowlife happens to be the son of lower life-form Howard Saint (John Travolta), a sleazier than thou money launderer (banker?) for Florida drug cartels.  He discovers Castle is an FBI agent and sends his mooks after Frank.  And at the behest of his moll, Saint asks for not just the death of Castle but his entire family.  And conveniently they are all gathering for a reunion.  Its brutal, horrible and sends Castle over the edge to be reborn soon after as The Punisher, skullie shirt and all.

I don't exactly know how but the movie seems to retain the grim violence of the comics while seeding in humor and heroism.  Castle, while planning the downfall of all of Saint's empire, shacks up next door to a bunch of misfits including a weirdo Ben Foster, very at odds with his current attempts to be the next Ryan Gosling.  They become sidekicks giving him a new family support system as he creatively takes down Saint, domino by domino.  But not via a simple kill bad guy, kill next bad guy and so on.  He actually encourages them to as much implode as an organization as he does kill them off. In the end, Saint has killed his own wife and best friend before becoming the final fatality of the movie. The movie sums itself up with elements of four color comics and revenge action flick.

Bonus paragraph: For a more faithful adaptation of the actual later comics I don't care, they actually did Punisher: War Zone, which was originally going to be Punisher 2, sequel to Jayne's, but ended up being a third depiction of the character independent of the others.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Oz: The Great And Powerful

2013, Sam Riami -- in theatre

I have written previously (in my Return to Oz review) of my lack of affection for the 1939 classic Wizard of Oz.  In spite of my borderline disdain, there's something within the concept of Oz that has always intrigued me.  Like all great fantasy, especially fantasy for children, there's a representation of darkness, the threat that everything is not going to be all right.  In Wizard there's the implication that Dorothy's parents have passed, what with her living with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.  There's the devastating tornado that uproots her from her family and tears her away into foreign terrain.  There's the horror of witches and flying monkeys, and that's just the obvious stuff. When the Wizard is exposed as a tired old man from Kansas himself, there's a sadness there too, of a man having to pretend to be someone he's not for a very very long time.

Return to Oz was by far darker throughout, starting with everyone thinking Dorothy was disturbed, leading up to her potentially getting electroshock therapy, before escaping back into an Oz that seems virtually post-apocalyptic.  These sorts of dark tinges in the movie have long made me curious to explore Oz more, yet I never have.  I just keep going back to the films (even Wizard I have seen countless times... in spite of my troubles it's an alluring production, especially the final act in the Emerald City).  Eventually I'll get there, but for now I'm excited there's another feature.  However, the realization that it was not an adaptation of one of L. Frank Baum's many, many Oz stories left my expectations low (alongside the many middling and unfavourable reviews that passed my way).

The biggest disappointment of learning it's an "original treatment" is that it's quite obviously drawing upon the continued popularity of the 1939 feature rather than its own adventure (but having not read Baum's stories I cannot say whether building off of, or piggybacking on preceding stories is a thing or not).  The thing that sunk Return to Oz though, was the expectation (both from the critics and the public) of a repeat of the the classic, and I feared Oz: The Great and Powerful would try too hard to correct that financial mistake.  They did indeed lean heavily on the original Wizard for inspiration, but they have their cake and eat it too, as the writers, director and studio found their own legs to stand on.

In taking a minor player from the 1939 classic (but major player in Oz mythology) and centering an adventure around him it also doubles as an origin for the Wizard we're familiar with and expands upon the land we've seen before.  As a child I always wanted to explore the Emerald City more, and this film gives you a guided tour.  Oscar "Oz" Diggs starts off (in black and white 4:3 aspect ratio, no less) as a small time con-man and illusionist, a teller of lies and an purveyor of fakery, and a big-time skirt-chaser, a genuine cad on top of it all, affording himself no love or friendship.  Working in a carnival in Kansas, he's chased off stage by an angry mob, and a short while later chased into a hot air balloon by an angry strongman (whose wife he made the moves on).  In between the two chases, he meets with an old flame, Annie, who notes she's marrying a man named Gale, an obvious tie to Dorothy (I presume this to imply she's their mother).

The balloon ride is ill-fated, as Oscar is swept up in a 3-D tornado (I'm not certain that Baum always used the tornado as a portal to Oz, it was a river in a storm that took Dorothy there in Return) and arrives in a strange land of waterfalls and giant flowers and biting river faeries.  He meets Theodora, a wide-eyed witch who believes that Oscar is the wizard of a long-told prophecy who will bring peace to the land.  Theodora also believes she has a part in this prophecy by his side, whether she constructed this as her own delusion or was something her more deceitful sister Evanora seeded in her mind is unclear.  But it's Oscar's rejection of her that sends her already volatile emotional state into deeper despair (her tears burn and scar her face, a nice allusion to her fate in Wizard).  It's clear Theodora is a pawn of her sister (perhaps Evanora realizing that her sister wields more power naturally), and Evanora continues to play her, up to and including poisoning her goodness so all that remains is her rage.  Evanora, likewise, is the evil witch who has divided the land of Oz and created the strife that infects it.  She portrays herself as a Good Witch and deflects all of the land's ills on the Witch of the South, noting that Glinda killed her own father, their former ruling wizard (and as is noted, the people of Oz are forbidden from killing), when indeed the wizard died by her own hand.

Oscar, a trickster, is tricked himself by Evanora, sent on a journey to kill the "wicked witch of the South", in return claiming his throne and the ample riches of Oz.  Reluctant to kill anyone (for all its weaknesses I adore this film for it's conceit to non-violence), even if all it entails is breaking a wand, Oscar hesitates and recants his mission when he discovers Glinda, the Good Witch, is the spitting image of Annie.  Glinda, like Annie, sees Oscar for what he is, a charlatan, a liar, a cad and a fake, but also full of potential, and inherently a man who wants to do good.  She knows he's not a great wizard, at least not in the strictest sense of the prophecy, but he is a man who can theoretically guide the people of Oz as the prophecy declared, so long as the people believe in him and what was foretold.

Glinda is, quite obviously, a pacifist.  Soft spoken and kind-hearted, she needs Oscar to be their leader, their general in battle, because she hasn't the heart or mind to do the deed herself.  Cunning is not in her nature, kindness is.  It's her kindness that bolsters Oscar, that raises his confidence and allows him to be the man he always wished he was.  Though he's no great wizard, he can be a good man, and be good to people.  He will learn from others and change, as he promised to the sky when thrust at the center of the tornado (although Baum's stories, I believe, remained religiously neutral).

Oscar, like Dorothy in the other Oz films I continue to reference, collects a couple of curious accomplices, including a flying monkey named Finley and a china doll who never gets a proper name.  The discovery of China Girl (as Oscar nicknames her) is one of the most conceptually gruesome moments in children's cinema.  Though nothing outright horrifying visually, when Oscar and Finley discover China Town, it's buildings and people smashed, it's a curious scene.  Upon hearing the sobs of China Girl, then finding her behind a table, legs broken underneath, the weight of the scene takes hold.  This was a town once rich with life and China Girl witnessed its death, shortly before she was crippled herself.  She's a tough girl (she carries a knife) and Oscar repairs her legs with quick-drying glue, but the loss of her family weighs on her, and the darkness in her story runs very deep, though the film makes a point of not getting too lost in it.

The performances in the film waver between sound and broad.  With the minor players all doing their part to keep things in check, while James Franco, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis (in a brassy reprise of Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch when she turns) play it bold, old-timey film style.  Cinema rarely gives actors the opportunity to do that, but it's surprisingly fun to see when they do (last year's Oscar winner The Artist had it, only limited to broad physicality).  Unfortunately, the script drags the bigness of the performances as well as the pace of the film far too often, as it spends so much time mincing over Oscar's willingness to be the hero that's required.  It's nailed up early in the film and continually hammered home.  The film clocks in at almost 130 minutes and could use 30 minutes of trimming and tightening (and I could easily tell where to start).  It's a kids movie, through and through, and the lulls will find even the most patient child anxious in their seat for the scene to move on.  The biggest drag is the film's seemingly endless love affair with its own special effect.  It spends laborious amounts of time trying to wow and flutter the audience with fantastical landscapes, which in all their digital glory, look about as impressive as a cartoon.  Cartoons tend not to languish on their scenery too much because time is too precious, these live action fantasies could learn a thing or two by studying them (in fact, I wondered why this wasn't a digitally animated feature in the first place).  A few establishing bits and we're good, we don't need multiple 3-minute travel/falling sequences.  All the awe and wonder becomes a little tiresome when it's awe and wonder all the time.

As an addition to the Oz mythos, it fares pretty well, in fact (that Oscar introduces scarecrows and fireworks, among other things, to Oz makes a certain amount of sense), and Kunis' turn as the Wicked Witch was one of the great pleasures I've had in the cinema of late.  It's not the singin' and dancin' Wizard, but I'm quite thankful of that.  It's got some pretty major flaws, but as entertainment with the kids (I'd say 6+ depending on if your kid gets scared easily... my 11-year-old found some scenes scary, but he's a softie when it comes to that stuff) you can definitely do worse.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Double Oh...12: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

d. John Glen

For Your Eyes Only preamble I really need to take a couple weeks off work just so I can get back to the pace that I started this Double Oh series at.  Anyway...
     When I think of Bond, the cold open at the start of this film is what I think of.  I don't know how, I don't know why, or when, or where, but I've seen this teaser dozens of times.  Or at least, I feel I have.  The memory of Roger Moore flying a helicopter into the back end of an electric wheelchair, the bald man within attempting to race away from it on a long stretch of factory rooftop, picking it up off the ground then dropping down a factory smokestack is burned into my memory, and for some reason it epitomizes Bond for me.  Vengeful, yet quippy.  Action oriented and fearless (or senseless maybe).  I'm sure I watched the rest of the film before but strangely this is the only part I remembered.

Villains: Blofeld appears, sort of, in that opening sequence, which again defies continuity, upholding Bond's marriage and his wife's death from On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  Bond boards a helicopter after tending to Tracy's grave, only to have it remotely hijacked by Blofeld.  Only seen from behind and his face never revealed (a return to his anonymous origins in the early Connery films), neither is Blofeld referred to by name, perhaps a concession of the legal issues then-still revolving around rights ownership of Thunderball.  He only appears in the teaser, and, after Bond finally gets his revenge, I believe, is never heard from again.
  The main film's main nemesis is Aris Kristatos (the suave Julian Glover), a former resistance fighter, now rogue and smuggler.  We meet him first as an ally of sorts.  Bond's contact in Italy introduces him, and Kristatos tells Bond of "the Dove" Columbo (no, not played by Peter Falk, but instead by the delightfully exuberant Topol), a rival smuggler, and one time accomplice in the resistance during WWII.   Kristatos is full of lies, however, and Columbo engages Bond to set things straight.
   The main source of confusion was who the East German Olympic Biathlete/henchman Eric Kriegler was working for, as Kristatos indicated he was in the employ of Columbo (Locque murders Bond's Italian contact and leaves a dove pin in his hand), but turns out he was really under Kristatos' thumb.  Kriegler is almost too much a match for Bond.  He's a better skier, in far better shape, he's bigger and stronger, but his failing is he's not as resourceful.
    Locque is a hired killer who doesn't have much of a role, but is the central instigator to much of the plot.  He's also part of one of the best Bond scenes ever, Bond kicking Locque's car off a cliff

    Kristatos is cunning and sly, and his plan to obtain the film's Maguffin and sell it to the Russians, in hindsight was perhaps a little too elaborate but made for some interesting twists along the way.  Columbo turned out to be a wonderful associate for Bond, and a thoroughly enjoyable character.

Bond Girls:  Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) is the primary Bond maiden in this one.  She's the twenty-something daughter of the marine biologists who are gunned down by Locque for discovering the whereabouts of the British naval sub carrying the ATAC (Automated Targeting Attack Computer) that could threaten the security of all of the British and American military communication channels, or something like that.  Melina is out for revenge, but perhaps a little too in-over-her-head.  To her credit, no matter how deep and troubled it gets, she's always ready to put up a fight.  She also gets plenty of opportunity to show off her own intelligence, skills and resourcefulness.  All around, she's a very confident and bold, crossbow-wielding character.
    Countess Lisl von Schlaf (Cassandra Harris) is Columbo's mistress. She works his casinos in a bit of a grifter role, dazzling winning patrons with her cleavage, egging them on to bigger bets until the house wins. Bond, well, naturally, pumps her for information, and just as naturally his death cock strikes and she's dead shortly thereafter, run over on the beach.  She at least seemed a more mature vixen and age appropriate for Bond.
    Finally there's Kristatos' ward, the aspiring Olympic figure skater he's sponsoring, Bibi Dahl (oh, Baby Doll, I just got it!).  She's a brash, forthright, sexually empowered American teen who doesn't chase boys, she tries to maul men.  She takes a shining to Bond and turns up naked in his bed, much to his horror.  Bibi Dahl proves that even Bond has standards, and he turns her down, repeatedly.  She's a really fun character serving a very useful purpose in the series.

Theme/Credits:  I must have stuck around after Blofeld gets dumped down the stovepipe, because just as that epitomizes Bond to me, this kind of epitomized for me for a long time, for better or worse, what a Bond credit sequence should be.  Essentially, a music video.  Sheena Easton, an attractive lady herself, is featured prominently in from and behind the silhouettes and projections of dancing, swimming and jumping nude figures.  Water is a prominent theme in the visuals, implying that there will be water work in the film, and of course there is.
    As for the song, it's the gateway between the '70's romantic ballad and the '80's power ballad.  You're either going to dig it or loathe it.  I know I should hate it, but I really like it.

Bond: Wow.  It's so weird for Bond to have standards, but here, a decidedly aging Bond (though not directly pointed at) seems a lot more paternal to Melina and Bibi.  Moore has a weariness here for Bond that is directly juxtaposed to his frequent quipping.  He's not quite Dirty Harry grizzled, but he's not as thoroughly cheeky as he once was.  Strange that as Moore aged as Bond, he's also called upon to appear more physical, in his fights and his chases, but he seemed up for the challenge, though it's hard to believe he can sustain it for another two films.  It's also rare that Bond isn't so focussed on sex, and I always appreciate it when he powers past his primal urges and focuses mostly on the job at hand.

Movie:  I really dug the weave of the characters in this one, how it introduced and brought all the players together.  It's not straightforward, but also not overly complex, just the right level of complication.  Kristatos' elaborate deception is a clever tweak for a Bond film, while the influence of Locque in bringing Melina into the plot was just another of the moving pieces in the film.  The Maguffin of the ATAC is typical of a Bond film, but it's only one of the motivators for the characters.
    For Your Eyes Only seemed to ramp up on the exotic action setpieces.   The 1956 Winter Olympic village of Cortina provides dangers for Bond including another deadly ski-chase that heads into a bobsled run, a ski-jump action sequence (which is far superior to Superman III), and hockey rink.  Later Bond and Melina take a 2-man submersible to the submarine wreck to retrieve the ATAC.  They don heavy deep sea scuba gear and venture out to the sub, having to deactivate the self-destruct device, only to be ambushed by Kreigler.  It's an intense fight sequence where the good guys are incredibly vulnerable, and terribly cool underwater sequence unlike any other that I've seen (instead of trying to recreate the mania of Thunderball's melee, they go for something more like Alien).
    The final act of the film includes another methodically paced lead in as Bond scales the side of a rock pillar to reach Kristato's retreat in an old monestary, but before he can reach, he's discovered and there's a dangling melee which is really quite cool.  I have to wonder if the film was poaching the Eiger Saction (Clint Eastwood's repectably writer-director-star stab at a Bond-like role).  Again the lair, perhaps not quite as cool as a space lab or a submersible habitat, but still very unique, visually and conceptually appealing.
    I should also note that it ends with a parrot talking to a Margaret Thatcher impersonator, which, you know, kind of plays both silly and charming (though that Bond invariably does wind up with Melina is kind of icky).

Q gadgets: beyond the Lotus that Bond drives (and wrecks again), we're treated to a few ridiculous items in Q's lair: a fake cast that can bust up a wall and an umbrella which can gore it's holder when it closes (... how would that ever be useful?).  The main purpose for Bond's visit is to use the Identograph, primitive facial recognition software.

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.8.  This one is solid through and through.  A couple of too-cheesy bits, and perhaps not the most memorable plot, but otherwise very engaging and still dazzling today.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

3 Short Paragraphs: Silver Linings Playbook

2012, David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings) -- cinema

Silver Linings Playbook was an Oscar-contendor structured movie about the damage caused by unchecked mental illness mirrored against how many of us deal with the triggers of it every day.  If you only saw the trailers leading up to the Academy Awards (excuse me, now rebranded officially as The Oscars) you might have thought of it primarily as a dance movie with love story.  But no, it really is mostly about crazy people in love. And some dancing.

I originally caught interest in the movie when TIFF trailers were circulating.  It looked to me like a darkly comedic movie, a small story about a man returning from his stay at the psychiatric hospital, to discover healing through his family and a new love. The subplot was that there is crazy in all of our lives and it is how we deal with it that makes the difference. I was hoping for something darker, more challenging, along the lines of Rachel Getting Married.  Alas, we got Oscar-fodder, and by that, I mean the plot elements they focused on were a dance competition and the big lead up to a grand exclamation of love, only missing a jog through a field of flowers... while wearing a rainshield made of garbage bags, of course.

A few minutes into the movie Marmy leaned over to me and whispered, "Imagine Ben Affleck playing the Bradley Cooper role."  Suddenly it all made sense to me -- the perpetual facial scrub, the working class family, the hoodie & sweats, and the bulky shoulders.  This was meant to be an Affleck vehicle and could have even inserted Matt Damon into the friend in the terrible marriage role.  Its not that Cooper wasn't good at playing Pat, but you could easily envision Ben doing the gestures, the rants, and the detached attraction to Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany.  But at least Lawrence carried this movie for me, as the not so much damaged as traumatized young woman surrounded by neurotic "normal" people.  Very grounded in her role, she owned (pwned perhaps?) the character keeping hurt, angry, vulnerable, caring, thoughtful and sexy all tightly wound in her portrayal with the appropriate bursts of emotion expected from a person dealing with so much. And yeah, I heart Jennifer and all her post-Oscar reactions to her win.