Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Long ago I remember seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol in theaters, which means I would have been around eight years old. I didn't remember it very well beyond Scrooge gloating about how Christmas is the perfect time for moneylenders because people spend mortgage money on gifts and parties.

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood has decided to revisit the film, and so I took a watch. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's Christmastime in Victorian London and the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) doesn't give a damn. He's a selfish, bitter, unpleasant man who gloats that Christmas is "harvest time for the moneylenders" (like himself) because people spend their mortgage payments on gifts and other "frivolities," tyrannizes his staff, including loyal Bob Cratchit (none other than Kermit the Frog), and apparently has turned foreclosed homes into slums he doesn't maintain while squeezing the tenants with high rents.

However, his deceased former partners Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf) visit him in the night, telling him that to avoid their fate of eternal damnation, he will be visited by three spirits--the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet To Come--and he should heed what they're saying. These spirits take Scrooge into his past, into the present, and into the future, a journey chronicled by Charles Dickens (the Great Gonzo) and his companion Rizzo the Rat.

The Good

*The acting is very good. Michael Caine does an excellent job as Scrooge, conveying the crankiness and bitterness and the temper creeping out from under his rather thin veneer of politeness. He also plays him as intelligent enough to make wise-sounding arguments to justify his ugliness (like suggesting people pay their mortgages rather than spend money on Christmas "frivolities"). And in the scenes of his childhood he conveys very well how these arguments are severe denial papering over deep psychological wounds. He's a big jerk gloating about foreclosing people on Christmas in the beginning, but damn I felt sorry for him based on the boarding-school scenes alone. And slowly as we see nostalgia creep in and him confronting his issues, he warms up quite convincingly. The musical number with the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him experiencing straight-up joy probably for the first time in many years and even though I didn't like the song, I thought that was one of the finest acting bits in the movie. And by the time the ghoulish Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come arrives, he has learned genuine humility and eagerly awaits the lessons this terrifying creature can teach him. Scrooge's arc is well-done and most of the credit for that belongs to Caine.

*When I was a little kid I didn't really understand why Scrooge hated Christmas or even really understood his back-story at all. I saw the Alliance Theater production (an Atlanta tradition) sometime later that elaborates on the end of his relationship with his fiancee Belle (he foreclosed on former employer Mr. Fezziwig under the influence of a much more malevolent Jacob Marley) and in the animated version he outraged her by foreclosing on someone whose mortgage payment was an hour late, but this one goes deeper into his past. Seeing him spending Christmas alone at boarding-school was legitimately poignant, as was seeing his fiancee leave him on Christmas because he was becoming too fixated on money even though the scene was rather abbreviated. Scrooge as an old man is a prick, but all of this made me feel for him.

*Per the above, you can see the miserly tendencies in Scrooge even when he's not truly a bad person. As a young man working for Fozziwig (Fozzy the Bear), he's concerned that Fozzy's Christmas party is consuming too much of the company's money. And his reasoning for delaying marriage to Belle (apparently not the first time this has happened) is that he's worried they don't have enough money to live properly. Scrooge's true wickedness (even if you have to foreclose on someone who doesn't pay their loans you don't have to enjoy it) comes later, but it doesn't emerge out of nothing.

*There are some moments of legitimate creepiness, like those leading up the appearance of Jacob Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*The film moves along relatively quickly, which is good for a kid's movie.

*I did like the younger Statler and Waldorf portraying the Marley Brothers as "lads" before they became old skinflints who ended up in Hell. I've only seen those particular Muppets as old people before, so a completely new design was pretty cool. We also see a Muppet spider-monster as the fence Old Joe buying stolen property and I liked the puppetry design of the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

*I liked the explicit Christianity of the Cratchit family, especially the disabled Tiny Tim who explicitly speaks of the One who healed the sick and made blind men see. And although Mrs. Cratchit clearly knows how much of a jerk Scrooge is, they all wish him a merry Christmas regardless. Jesus said to love even one's enemies and one's jerkass employer doesn't quite reach that level.

The Bad

*Muppet Treasure Island has much better and more memorable songs. "One More Sleep 'Til Christmas" really isn't that good. Neither is "Marley and Marley," which introduces Scrooge's deceased business partners who try to help him avoid their damnation for callous greed and even outright sadism (gloating about foreclosing an orphanage). The Ghost of Christmas Present's song isn't that good either. Belle's song about how her and Scrooge's relationship wasn't meant to be should have stayed in some capacity so Gonzo and Rizzo's reactions make more sense and to amplify the sadness of Scrooge's back-story, although perhaps not this version.

(From her facial expressions she seems like she's spitefully rubbing her leaving in his face rather than sad their relationship is dying because of Scrooge's greed and/or fixation with having "enough money." If she truly loved him I would imagine she would mourn rather than be sadistic.)

*I would have had a lot more sympathy for Scrooge's nephew Fred (Stephen Mackintosh) if he hadn't taken shots at his uncle at a Christmas party. If I had a relative with whom I had some...sharp philosophical disagreements...I simply wouldn't discuss them with non-family-members at all rather than making them the butt of my jokes at parties. Especially if I'd invited them to said party in the first place.

*It's my understanding that Fred's mother Scrooge's sister (with whom he was rather close) died and that Fred's presence aggravates Scrooge's uglier tendencies because he's never come to terms with her death. Although one might think they can't go into a lot of detail due to this being a kid's movie, the impending death of Tiny Tim stayed. Perhaps Fred could bring up his mother and that sets Scrooge off--kids wouldn't get it but adults would. Instead Scrooge's sister is never mentioned at all, even though according to some of what I've read her death (apparently that was on Christmas too) is one factor behind Scrooge's hating Christmas and his bad behavior in general.

*Scrooge is entirely too well-dressed for a miser. It's my understanding Scrooge was so cheap and obsessed with money that he didn't spend even on pleasurable things for himself. In one version of the story I read or saw on television (it might have been the Mr. Magoo version of the story), the ghostly Jacob Marley chides him for living on gruel in a cold drafty house. Obviously he does have to look somewhat presentable to do business, but I would expect a more austere mode of dress.

(Of course, either Nic or Thomas theorized that he pilfered the watch and chain off the dead Jacob Marley, which would make sense.)

The Verdict

Michael Caine is probably one of the best human actors in any Muppets film I have ever seen, but the movie is still rather mediocre. 6.0 out of 10.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Movie Review: Labyrinth (1986)

I don't call my review of Labyrinth a "blast from the past" review because I never saw it when I was a kid, except perhaps for the opening animated owl on the Disney Channel. I knew about the movie from film books (I remember reading about the special effects in a book that also shows how they did the unmasked Vader for Return of the Jedi, for example) and always found the concepts and some of the imagery rather creepy, so I actually avoided watching the film.

(I did know enough about the film to make jokes about David Bowie's excessively tight pants when I was older.)

Well, the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is discussing the film and so here I am finding the motivation to watch the movie. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

Teenage Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is not taking her parents' divorce, her father's remarriage, and the presence of her baby half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) very well. She retreats into her imagination and fantasyland far more than is healthy. Required to babysit Toby one night so her father and stepmother can go on a date, she becomes so frustrated with him that she wishes the Goblin King would take him away.

Well be careful what you wish for. None other than the Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie) and various Muppet minions show up. Sarah immediately realizes the horrible mistake she's made, but Jareth requires her to solve a magical labyrinth in 13 hours or else Toby will be transformed into a goblin forever.

Sarah now has to traverse a dangerous and magical world, making friends and allies and learning life lessons along the way.

The Good

*Although TVTropes (and some of the reviews from the time) talk crap about her acting, Jennifer Connelly does a great job as Sarah. She starts out as a selfish, immature, annoying, bratty teenager. Seriously, there is a lot of flouncing and excessive drama going on here (plus her speech to Toby about how he's a selfish brat shows quite a bit of projection) and it makes her really unsympathetic. However, through the events of the film, she grows out of it. Even when she's in full brat mode she still shows some sisterly concern for Toby, and Connelly does a good job projecting her growing horror when she realizes that she did set the goblins on him. And when the Goblin King takes Toby away, she sets right to getting him back, although she takes some time to grow out of her demanding and selfish tendencies. Sarah's character arc is extraordinarily well done and much of the credit goes to Connelly.

*The character Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) is given real depth and is played very sympathetically. He's short, ugly, has low self-esteem, apparently never had any friends until he met Sarah, and gets abused and threatened by Jareth, but although he does some bad stuff he's not truly bad. I liked him.

*There are moments of legitimate suspense, like the intercut of real, actual goblins observing Sarah about to invoke them and her over-dramatic speech in which she makes the wish that the goblins would take Toby away. If I didn't know the general story already, I would have definitely found it more suspenseful, and if I were a little kid (i.e. the target audience), even more so. And the Junk Lady (Denise Bryer) is pretty creepy too, given what she ultimately plans on doing.

*The movie teaches good moral lessons for children, especially those who might have a new sibling they resent or are part of a blended family. Sarah learns over the course of it to be unselfish, brave, humble, ask nicely for things, not judge by appearances, persevere when things get tough, understand that things aren't always what they seem, and solve her own problems using her own intelligence. She also uses the kindness we see even in full brat mode to recruit allies.

*The movie gets off to a quick start and moves along quickly. Sarah's invocation of the Goblin King is ten minutes in and she enters the labyrinth at around fifteen.

*Although Shelley Thompson isn't in the film much as Sarah's stepmother, she does a good job with her small part. Although I can easily imagine her rubbing Sarah the wrong way, I can definitely see her point of view that Sarah isn't respectful and needs to have a more normal social life. And her and Sarah's issues are shown, not told, in one scene that was painful to watch.

*There are a lot of good subtle touches, and nothing is in the film by accident. For example, Sarah has a scrapbook with clippings of her actress mother's career and a man beside her in the image is David Bowie. To be fair I might not have noticed if I hadn't already known from others' comments on the film that Jareth is really is her mother's new boyfriend (yikes, a sexual rivalry with one's own mother?), but just because someone doesn't notice subtext doesn't mean it's not there. Another example is all the toys and fairy-tale stuff in Sarah's room. Despite being presumably 15-16 (Connelly's actual age at the time), this shows rather than tells her immaturity, as does the fact that she utterly loses it when Toby and/or her stepmother take one of the toys for him to play with. Yes, teenage girls don't want people messing with their things (as Nic pointed out in the podcast), but I was a better sharer at 3-4 (when my little brother was born/big enough to want to play with my toys) than she is at 16.

*The costumes and creature design are very well-done. Giving Bowie's Goblin King different-colored eyes makes for an unsettling introduction, besides the obvious fact that he's come in through Toby's bedroom window and is looming over a teenage girl. There's also a straight-up Goblin Mecha Muppet at one point that's pretty cool, as well as armies of goblins with what look like elderly velociraptor cavalry and machine guns.

The Bad

*The opening sequence goes on for too long with that damn owl flying around. All with the David Bowie soundtrack too. It goes on for nearly three minutes. Come on people, let's get going.

*Speaking of David Bowie, he's not that impressive as an actor. When he first appears to Sarah he's rather monotone and dull. He does manage to project his subtle contempt for Sarah well with his speech about how she should go back to her toys and forget about Toby and it seems like he really is having fun in "Magic Dance." However, I think he's mostly there for the singing, and his acting ability pales in comparison to Connelly.

*There's too much David Bowie music in the soundtrack. Yes, I know he has a major part in the movie, but the Bowie songs are jarring when the rest of the film's soundtrack is more typical of an 80s fantasy film and him actually singing in-scene (other than "Dance, Magic Dance") was even worse. A Bowie concept album based on the film (exploring themes like coming of age, sexual awakenings, parental divorce, etc) would have been an interesting idea though, just like Songs in the Key of X for The X-Files. It would have been better to save the actual Bowie songs in the opening and closing credits of the film rather than have him awkwardly bursting into song in the midst of his appearances. "Dance, Magic Dance" kind of works, but it comes off to me as what TVTropes would call a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment. Although I could imagine it's there to show that Jareth is bored lording it over a bunch of dim-witted gremlins (i.e. motivation for messing with Sarah and/or wanting to keep her and her brother as companions) and that he's more affectionate with Toby than his own sister, it just comes off like an excuse to have a Bowie number. Actual musicals integrate the numbers into the plot far better. And although one could excuse "DMD" as Jareth just being bored and having a musical performance for kicks, him bursting into song at other times really didn't work for me. "Within You" is a really blatant example.

*And as far as Big-Lipped Alligator Moments are concerned, the singing and dancing vaguely Caribbean fire creatures took too much time on-screen, event though they do serve as an additional peril for Sarah and give her a chance to demonstrate her cleverness in dealing with them. The blue-screen effects aren't very good either. I admit I do like the song though. :)

*Some of the dialogue is a little too on the nose, like Sarah's bit about how she took it for granted after Hoggle lectures her about not taking things for granted.

The Verdict

A charming children's fantasy with some flaws. 8.5 out of 10. Of, and for anybody who's interested, someone typed up the entire novelization here. It goes into a lot more detail about the psychological and family dynamics driving the plot if you're into that sort of thing.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

ISIS Nukes Brussels, The Seljuks Beats the Mongols, and Stalin Joins The Axis

Although I'm still self-banned from posting on the biggest alternate-history forum on the Internet, I do visit the public sections to see what interesting actual alternate history (as opposed to the endless political arguing I quit the forum to avoid) is being discussed.

This led to my finding three more interesting timelines in recent weeks. One takes place in the modern day, the second in the days where Turkish power expanded into Asia Minor at the expense of the crumbling Byzantines, and the third during World War II.

The Sultanate of Rumistan: An Alternate Anatolia-The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was established after the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by the Seljuk Turks, which began the process of Turkifying and Islamizing Asia Minor and the Byzantines' long decline. The Sultanate was eventually defeated and forced to pay tribute to the Mongols after their defeat at the Battle of Kose Dag, but in this timeline, the Seljuk sultan listens to his experienced commanders and waits for the Mongols to come to him rather than attack them immediately. The Mongols are defeated and the decline of the Seljuk Sultanate--which ultimately led to the rise of the Ottoman Empire--is averted. This is going to make life rather difficult for the Byzantines, but the author knows a whole lot about the workings of the Seljuk Sultanate, the neighboring Kingdom of Georgia, and the Byzantine secessionist regime in Trebizond and it's really quite interesting.

The Maw: When the Lights of the World Went Out-This story begins with agents of the infamous Islamic State somehow getting hold of a nuclear weapon--just how they got it hasn't been explained yet--and they smuggle it from the Middle East into Belgium. They set it off in the downtown area of Brussels, killing tens of thousands (if not more) immediately and provoking France to nuke ISIS's capital of al-Raqqa in reprisal. A straight-up World War II level obliteration of ISIS soon follows. It looks like the author was setting up a much darker scenario based on the hints he was dropping, but the timeline hasn't been updated in some time. Given how the real-life migrant crisis in Europe has been, well, a crisis, a world where ISIS agents snuck into Europe via Greece and ripped a chunk of a major EU city out with a nuke, I suspect the people getting the worst of it are going to European and refugee Muslims.

The Twin Vipers-Stalin joins the Axis. Although given Hitler's ultimate desire to conquer the Soviet Union, exterminate "Jewish Bolshevism," and turn the Slavs into helots for German Spartans and how in general fascism and Communism are opposed ideologies make this sound absolutely insane, there were talks to that effect. Rather than refusing to deal more than the bare minimum with people whom he viewed as racial enemies, the Germans were actually willing to admit the Soviets to the alliance to help defeat Britain. That would have made life very difficult for the Western Allies, since the Soviets could menace the Middle East and India in a way the Germans could not.

However, this timeline begins somewhat earlier than the real-life talks that took place after the defeat of France when the 1939 border conflict between the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan that ended with the Battle of Khalkin Gol escalates into a full-blown war. This leads to Mussolini getting sidelined, the British and French fighting the Soviets in Finland, and even Operation Pike, an Anglo-French plan to bomb the Soviet oil fields that didn't happen in real life.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Movie Review: Muppets from Space (1999)

Here's another movie review I hesitate to call a "blast from the past" simply because even though it came out the summer between my last year of middle school and my first year of high school (1999), I didn't actually see it. It's Muppets from Space and it's the latest offering of the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the podcast episode. And now onto the review...

The Plot

Big-nosed Muppet Gonzo (Dave Goelz) is having a personal crisis, unsure of his place in the world or even his species. After he begins receiving messages in his breakfast cereal, he starts to think that he's actually an extraterrestrial. This draws the attention of K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), the head of an MIB-like government agency headquartered in an old cement factory.

Will Gonzo find his alien family? Or will he be captured and have his brains sucked out? And will Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) advance her journalism career? Only one way to find out...

The Good

*There are some moments of surprising poignancy for a Muppet movie. Gonzo's loneliness and angst about not knowing what he precisely are very well done. Meanwhile, Tambor's back-story of being mocked for his beliefs in aliens had real pathos. He made me empathize with the character no matter how much of an a-hole the man objectively is.

*There are some clever jokes here and there. There're riffs on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Independence Day, and Men in Black, among others. I admit I laughed out loud during a karate fight between an MIB and none other than Miss Piggy, a fight that had quite a few double entendres. There are also anal-probe jokes and a whole riff on prison films, including Shawshank Redemption. A lot of the humor works well for adults as well as kids.

*Some of the Muppets I was less familiar with like Clifford (Kevin Clash) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Baretta) get their time to shine. I especially liked Pepe. And Miss Piggy was pretty darn funny, especially when she gets rough.

*The movie is relatively short, which is good for kids and good for me considering I didn't really enjoy it that much. More on that below.

The Bad

*Although I did like some of the jokes, the movie gets off to a very slow start. And that's a real problem.

*What's with all the retro soundtrack music? I generally prefer "classic rock," 1980s pop, etc. to modern music, but that doesn't mean I'd give a movie set in the present day so many songs from previous eras. There's "Brick House," "The Gambler," and a lot of stuff from the 1970s or very early 1980s. And the Muppets themselves never sing, not like they do in Muppet Treasure Island where there're good songs like "Shiver My Timbers," "Boom Shakalaka," and "Professional Pirate."

*The movie seems to be a return to the earlier Muppet films like The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Great Muppet Caper in which the Muppets are a group of actors or musicians trying to get by in something resembling the real world rather than Muppet Treasure Island and Muppet Christmas Carol in which the Muppets are characters in an otherwise-unrelated work. I liked that approach better, although if they wanted to do a sci-fi story exploring the origins of Gonzo, I'm not sure how they'd do it. The Muppet Men In Black? That might be kind of cool actually. Keep Will Smith as Agent J and have Kermit as Agent K with guns fighting aliens. Miss Piggy can be the eventual Agent L. Or since Gonzo's friends all think he's going insane, perhaps The Muppet Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Or if Gonzo is of supernatural rather than alien origin, The Muppet Hellboy? Kermit would need to be pretty jacked up to play Hellboy and Miss Piggy as Liz seems difficult.

*Although the muppets are fine, the CGI special effects haven't really aged well. It would have probably been better to go old-school on this one.

The Verdict

Meh. 4.0 out of 10. It doesn't even have good songs like Muppet Treasure Island. Go see The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth instead of you want a better puppet movie.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Guest Post: Where's Marion...Or Disposable Love Interests

By Kiti Lappi

In a discussion on Facebook a few days ago we got to talking about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - the Indiana Jones movie which should not have been in the opinion of lots of fans, it seems -  and one of the good points with that movie came up.

It brought Marion back. And even got her and Indy finally married. That there was a son was good too. Forget that he was played by THAT actor, just consider the idea that there is a next generation now. At least I like it, maybe because I don’t have any kids of my own and with my age there is now no chance of any, not natural ones anyway, and being one kind of dead end bothers me a bit. 

And even somebody like Indy, a character who IS tied to time unlike somebody like, say, James Bond, so he is supposed to age - it’s not nice to imagine him as a the cranky lonely old man next door, moving around with a cane or a walker and nobody knowing how cool he once was. Better to imagine him as the doting grandfather, telling stories of his exploits to the grandkids who are gathered around him and are watching with wide eyes and waiting with bated breath for him to tell how he got out of the snake pit that time.

But the biggie is still: They brought Marion back.

Why? Why does matter so much to me?

Personally, one aspect is that I like romance. Hey, I am a woman, so sue me. However I can’t stand most romance novels because hell of a lot of them - most I have read - spend way too much time with the endless will they or won’t they, does he really love, or even like her, how deep are her feelings for him, or describing what kind of sex they have when they get to it and forgetting what is the other nominal plot at times totally, and especially when that other plot is supposed to be kind of important, like a murder mystery or espionage or, hell, saving her business, or his, or the family farm, the characters spending inordinate amounts of time concentrating on how hot that other person is, whether to have sex, or wondering if he really cares, makes the whole thing feel more than a bit flakey to me. 

If there is a murderer on the loose and possibly coming after me you could drop the hottest male in the universe on my lap and I’d still spend at least somewhat more time trying to figure out who that killer is than admiring his total hotness and wondering what he maybe thinks of me (and trying to figure out whether to have sex…). Maybe I’m just quirky that way, or have low sex drive or whatever, but mostly those scenes make me want to grab the characters and shake them and point out that there are somewhat more important things happening around them. 

And keep love triangles far away from me, thanks. One at a time is complicated enough. 

So for me the go-to source for romance has always been all kinds of other stories with a romance subplot. Like the first Indiana Jones. Which was rather great as far as that part is concerned. You got that they knew each other, you got that there was history and previous problems, you got that they still had feelings - deep feelings - for each other, that they would not have ever gotten back together except for the circumstances which now forced them to. So would that be enough to bring them back together? He cared, she cared, but was their troubled history still too much for them? 

Then, exciting derring do and lots of action later they did get back together. Ooh, they really DO love each other. Now they just have to stay together, right? Wedding, family, adventures together before kids, and maybe adventures where that family gets threatened and they work together to save each other and their family and… OOH, I CAN’T WAIT!

Then next movie. No Marion. 

Okay, this was a prequel, and set for the period of time after their break up and before they met again. And Willie certainly was no match for her, so understandable that that affair never led to anything. 

And then there is the third movie

And… hey, where’s Marion? Why is Indy now flirting with that blonde? That story does pretty clearly take place later than the Ark one, so - what happened?

Of course the affair with Elsa doesn’t last, and ends very definitely, but he still has an affair with her. And as far as I remember there isn’t even a mention of Marion, no short discussion with Jones senior, for example, with him telling junior that he should have stayed with Marion, him answering that they just seemed to be incompatible or something and that she had left, or saying that they had a break up and he gave up too easily but is now going back and he WILL win her back because this showed him that she is the only one for him. 

But there is nothing. It’s pretty much as if she hadn’t even existed. 

And that definitely made the film less enjoyable for me, because I kept waiting for that explanation, even as a throwaway comment, of her absence. 

Now on some level I get it. The meeting, the attraction, the getting to know each other a bit and then the hero getting her favor, conquering her, during the story is exciting. And I suppose after that doesn’t seem as exciting, they now know each other, he has won her, what else is there to tell? Plenty, actually, but I suppose it could be a bit harder to make all that seem exciting. The meeting and wooing is easier.

So often enough in film series the female lead in each movie changes. Our hero meets and wins a new lady each time. 

But this revolving door of leading ladies makes a hero seem kind of shallow. Okay, often enough more like VERY shallow. Especially when each time the previous love of his life, or at least the last lust object, seems to be totally forgotten, not meriting even that throwaway line of how she, I don’t know, went back to her childhood sweetheart or had a too busy work schedule or how his job makes it too dangerous for him to commit to long term relationships and he is willing to risk only short affairs, or that maybe he was so badly scarred by losing the great love of his life that he no longer can go there. 

(Okay, at least they have tried to give that impression a few times in the James Bond franchise… better than nothing, I guess). 

The hero is a player, going through life having short, even if sometimes pretty intense affairs with countless women he seems to totally purge from his life and his memory afterwards. 

And at least for me that makes him seem rather less heroic. 

And then there always is that image of the hero as the lonely, cranky old man… not cool. Not at all.

I want the cool grandpa. And the young man who will fall in love, win his lady love and then KEEP her, through thick and thin, until death parts them. With at least one kid and then grandkids coming to the story at some point, whether that gets shown or not. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Movie Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

I hesitate to call this a "blast from the past" movie review even though it's for the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood because I never saw Atlantis: The Lost Empire in theaters even though it came out the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Perhaps I should have, since it wasn't long historically speaking (less than a decade) until The Princess and the Frog and Disney abandoning old-school 2D animation in favor of 3D stuff like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. Let the record state I generally like the 2D look better, especially in the hands of a master like Disney alumnus Don Bluth when he did things like The Secret of the NIMH and Titan A.E., both of which, incidentally, I previously reviewed for Myopia.

Oh well. Too late now. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

It turns out Atlantis was real, but sank beneath the ocean in a cataclysm that killed many of its citizens but left a few survivors hidden in force-fielded disaster shelters. Flash forward thousands of years and we meet Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox), a boiler-room worker and sometimes academic at a museum whose board of directors is tired of hearing about his theories on Atlantis. Recruited by a friend of his late grandfather, he sets off on an undersea voyage in search of a lost city and its legendary advanced technology. Unfortunately some members of his crew have ulterior motives, and trouble ensues.

No wonder we did this as the last film in a month ostensibly dedicated to Indiana Jones films...

The Good

*The movie starts out with a bang with the destruction of Atlantis (well, most of it) and then we cut straight to Milo's misadventures. Those happen to be hilarious, by the way, especially when the board of trustees are running away from him in a desperate attempt to avoid listening to his theories about Atlantis. Then we meet Whitmore and the submarine and off we go.

*The animation is well-done, meshing traditional drawings with CGI.

*The supporting cast of ethnic stereotypes was kind of amusing, plus they did put some effort into developing them as characters. African-American Dr. Joshua Sweet (Phil Morris) is actually half-Native American and raised in both cultures, while Puerto Rican Audrey Ramirez's (Jacqueline Obradors) more typically masculine interests were encouraged by a father who wanted sons. And given how exaggeratedly macho she can get, one can infer this didn't make her family particularly popular back home and perhaps she had to fight. The one who got the least development is the lecherous and filthy Frenchman "Mole" (Corey Burton).

*Surprisingly edgy for a Disney film on multiple levels--one action sequence is set off by Milo setting off for a midnight crap (complete with a shovel, toilet paper, and him taking his pants off), cars with screaming soldiers exploding, on-screen bleeding wounds, etc. No wonder this one was rated PG.

*Some of the historical detail works, like WWI-style uniforms for the soldiers and one character's angsting about the dangers of the Kaiser.

*There are no contrived ways for the heroes to win without killing bad guys, or at least it's kept to a minimum. You want to stop a bunch of violent thugs from destroying an ancient culture? Prepare to get your hands dirty. I've pointed out the problems with that before. And even though our hero isn't the mightiest man by any stretch of the imagination, he gets in on it too.

The Bad

*During the leviathan attack scene, it was awfully dark and hard to tell what was going on. To be fair I watching that part on my Kindle Fire HDX while on the apartment elliptical rather than on my laptop or a television, but I don't recall having the same issues with the rest of the movie. Considering how much I liked the film's animation, this was somewhat disappointing.

*This is something I didn't notice until Nic pointed it out on the podcast, but Kida, the Atlantean princess, is either unable to or has difficulty reading the old-school Atlantean language, as do apparently many other Atlanteans. Thing is, Kida and her father at least and probably much more of the population have been around since the collapse of Atlantis itself, their aging process dramatically slowed by their supernatural/super-science crystals. It's not like Milo found a group of descendants of ancient Romans who over the course of generations have gradually forgotten most of their language--one can infer that the Atlantean king never actually taught his daughter to read.

Granted, the Atlantean king doesn't seem to be the type (he does, after all, tell Kida she will be queen after him), so I doubt that's actually the case. However, the fact it can even be read that way is a bit of a problem. I could imagine a modern Latin scholar finding a lost Roman colony and re-teaching them stuff they'd lost (remember, most people in ancient times would be illiterate anyway), but given how long-lived the Atlanteans are, it seems very unlikely they'd just forget. If it was made clear that the language used on the technology is something akin to hieroglyphics or Latin and the Atlanteans typically use only a "lower" script/language as was the case in ancient Egypt that might be one thing, but it's NOT. Also, Kida is the heir to the throne and part of the upper class. Realistically she at least would know how to read it even if the Atlantean commoners wouldn't, and given the prevalence of their technology before the collapse, I would expect more of the Atlanteans to know it too.

*The Atlanteans' ability to speak all the different languages doesn't really make a lot of sense. Even thought the Atlanteans look Polynesian, their original language seems to be some kind of Indo-European dialect (the young Kida calls her mother something resembling "Ma"), but despite living underwater for thousands of years they can speak modern English and French? Maybe if it was made clear they'd rescued survivors of ships destroyed by the guardian monster Leviathan over the centuries, that would make more sense.

(It might also replenish their gene pool--considering how they're descended from a relatively small number of survivors and all seem to look generally the same, they're probably getting more and more inbred as the generations pass.)

*It's established early on that Sweet is an Indian medicine man as well as a modern-style doctor, but we never see him trying any Native American medical techniques when things go wrong. It's like a gun on the mantelpiece that's never fired.

*And the Atlanteans initially seem awfully welcoming to people who'd barreled into their homeland uninvited, armed, and in such large numbers. It's even lampshaded by the Atlantean king. Some more mixed reactions by the rank-and-file Atlantean soldiers to their commander's sociability with the strangers might be in order. And the villains' plot could be triggered by an attack by some overzealous Atlantean (think Kocoum attacking John Smith in Pocahontas)--if some idiot gave them a pretext and it isn't initially clear who attacked whom on whose orders, that could keep some of the good people on the bad side longer.

The Verdict

Generally an entertaining film, but there are some logic issues. 8.0 out of 10.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

The film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood rounds out the Indiana Jones movies with the last one, 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Yes, the one with Shia LaBeouf in it. Not actual cannibal Shia LaBeouf, fortunately, but still. I remember finding it rather disappointing when I first saw it--the McCarthyite G-Men questioning Jones' war service came off to me as a shot at the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (which questioned the 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry's Vietnam record) and everybody seemed rather passive standing around with Soviet guns pointed at them much of the time.

So ten years later, was it as disappointing as I remember it? Let's take a watch (here's the podcast) and find out...

The Plot

It's 1957 and although McCarthyism historically would be winding down, it's still possible for academic Henry "Indiana" Jones (Harrison Ford) to get accused of being a Communist. Especially since he's narrowly escaped from a band of Soviet soldiers on the loose in the United States under the command of Communist zealot Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). Placed on indefinite suspension after the FBI searches his office, he meets an angry young man named "Mutt" Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who brings a message from Jones' former colleague Harold Oxley (John Hurt) passed on via his kidnapped mother Mary (ACTRESS REDACTED FOR SPOILER REASONS). The race to prevent the Soviets from seizing the power of the legendary Crystal Skull is on...

The Good

*Some people think Indiana Jones should stay in the realm of fighting Nazis and Judeo-Christian supernatural lore, but after 1945 the Nazis were squashed flat and the totalitarian danger was the Soviet Union (and to a lesser degree Mao's China). You can't have him fighting Nazis after WWII if you want to continue his having adventures, and Spielberg's original idea of having him fight an uprising of Nazi die-hards somewhere after WWII sounded really forced. I had no beef with the Hindu sacred stones of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Hell, I found that one better than the explicitly Christian Last Crusade. And this isn't the first time Indiana has tangled with the Reds--once upon a time there was Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine and other times he fought the Soviets.

*Spielberg cast actual Russians as the Soviet soldiers so they'd have authentic accents. Some of them even look distinctively Slavic. That's some good attention to detail there. The refrigerator from the infamous refrigerator sequence is also one of the older models that latch and cannot be opened from the inside--i.e. the kind that children suffocate in. That also shows attention to detail, as those models would eventually get phased out but that wouldn't have happened as early as 1957 given how I remember my mother warning me as a child (i.e. late 1980s or early 1990s) about the dangers of refrigerators.

*Although I'd griped about the relative lack of action sequences at the time, Indiana and Mutt's adventures following the trail of the kidnapped Oxley and Mary (whom we find out later is a lot more important) utilize actual archaeological skills like excavating, looking for clues, etc. It's not all about throwing down with German and Russian soldiers and Hindu death cultists, people. :) And our heroes are passive captives a lot less often than I remember.

*Blanchett does a good job as Spalko, a Soviet agent who (possibly if you go with the movie; definitely if you include expanded-universe stuff) has psychic powers. Not only that, but she's an extreme True Believer in Communism. Not just Communism, but straight-up Stalinism given how she talks about the man. And she has some very sinister and supremely creepy plans. The Nazis' vast armies and open contempt for freedom, democracy, etc. were an obvious danger, but the Soviet threat was more subtle.

*There's some stuff that's pretty funny, including the diner brawl scene and at least one incident where Indiana tries something that would have worked in the 1930s but doesn't owing to his advanced age.

*LaBeouf is oftentimes aggravating as Mutt, but that may well be intentional. He's an angry young man with a giant chip on his shoulder, apparently a bit of a strained relationship with his mother, and somewhat lacking in male role models. And he can convincingly emote, not just when he's angry but when he's legitimately upset.

*Indiana's interaction with his love interest in the film (not saying who for reasons of spoilers) is pretty funny. They're like an old married couple, except they're not. It's one of the most entertaining parts of the film. And said love interest's age allows for the frame story of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles--at least part of which is canon, considering how in the movie he talks about riding with Pancho Villa--in which he's elderly and living with a daughter and grandchildren to not contradict this one. After all, the record for the oldest natural mother is in the mid-late 50s and Indiana's daughter from the show does resemble this movie's female lead somewhat. Not going into any more details for reasons of spoilers, although you guys should know who I'm talking about by now. Especially since although her showing up is supposed to be this big surprise, she's on the poster.

*Although a lot of people had a beef with the refrigerator scene, there were people who survived Hiroshima despite being within 300 meters of the detonation. Here's some more, with one survivor using a freezer. The landing and rolling should be the problem, but then again, he did drink from the Holy Grail about nineteen years before. Even if you have to drink continuously from it to stay alive, it still might've conferred better-than-usual health.

The Bad

*The earlier films had German soldiers operating in other countries during peacetime in full uniform and in large numbers and nobody seems to care. The opening sequence features at least a couple squads and maybe a platoon (40 men) of Russian soldiers roaming around Nevada. The fact they're in stolen U.S. uniforms makes it less ridiculous than I remember--I'd thought they were wearing more distinctive Russian gear--but still. Infiltrating a few agents here and there isn't hard, especially in an open society like the U.S. But dozens of men? The Germans tried to infiltrate saboteurs into the U.S. during WWII and they got caught pretty quickly. Surely in this more paranoid time someone acquiring that many U.S. military uniforms, vehicles, etc. for disguises would be noticed. Maybe if it was obviously older stuff like WWII-era Lend Lease material from when the US and Soviets were allied that might work, but nobody mentions that. A snarky "thank the Lend Lease program for their generosity" would be all that was needed.

And later they're in actual Soviet uniforms in South America. You know, where the U.S. had a history of slapping down anything remotely resembling a Communist movement. This is not to say that U.S. intelligence is omniscient, but surely somebody would notice something. Especially, you know, the whole "in Soviet uniform" part. Very obvious, especially with the ludicrous amounts of equipment they bring with them that has Russian writing on it. The Soviets had better HumInt than we did; they'd be better at subtlety.

*For reasons of realism/plausibility, I would have set the film in 1954-ish. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin died in 1953 and Stalin's successor Khruschev might've wanted Stalin devotee Spalko out of the country and not potentially threatening his reforms. Ergo, send her off on a spying mission where her occult talents could be useful. McCarthy's colleagues turned on him in 1954, but the harassment of Indiana could be part of the Red Scare's death spasms. Indiana's love interest would be younger and thus more likely to be the mother of Indiana's daughter as depicted in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. I could easily imagine him having a daughter of out of wedlock given how much of a cad he was as a younger man, but if said daughter was the product of a fling or one-night stand and he had no involvement in her life, why is she looking after him in his old age? Do her kids need a father figure that badly that she'd be willing to take in a man who left her mother "in trouble" decades prior?

Yes, I am that much of a stickler for continuity and plausibility and IJ has a well-laid-out timeline.

*Mutt refers to having attended prep schools with fencing and debate, the former of which he puts to good use. Given his familial situation, how exactly could they have afforded that, especially given the implication he was kicked out of many of said prep schools? Colin Williams must've had quite an RAF pension.

*The monkey sequence is entirely too over-the-top. There's pulpy (like Mutt's sword duel with a Soviet agent, which according to the almighty TVTropes was actually filmed for real aboard two speeding jeeps) and then there's just ridiculous.

*A character who was Indiana's war buddy betrays him to the Soviets for money and then is entirely too aggressive in chasing him around. One's switch doesn't totally flip from "friend" to "enemy" like that--the slide to damnation is typically more gradual. Maybe if they'd been injured somehow as a result of their betrayal earlier in the film, then they'd blame Indiana rather than themselves and pursue him vindictively. Think Darth Vader blaming Obi-Wan for his crippling in Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader, which fuels his further descent into evil rather than making him reconsider his actions. But that's not what happened.

(In his defense he does later seem to try to be friends with Indiana, recruit him for another money-making scheme, etc., but if his heart really isn't in it, why is he following him to South America? Even if in addition to paying off his gambling debts the Soviets were blackmailing him--they were very good at that--he seems way too enthusiastic.)

*And given the importance of what's going on at the base in the opening sequence, it seems unlikely there'd only be a few guards at the gate even though it's out in the middle of nowhere.

*There's a fair bit of obvious CGI, especially where small animals are concerned.

*In the movie, Indiana references having been at one point a double agent in Berlin during WWII. Basically he would have pretended to be working for (presumably) the Nazis while really working for the U.S. Thing is, given the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade and some of the non-movie adventures, it's clear he's no friend to Hitler and his goons. The Nazis would be fools to think he'd be willing to betray the U.S. for them after all that, and the sheer amount of bad blood between him and them would make working together very difficult. Better to leave that out and make it that he was a commando or something. Per the other Indiana Jones material, he spent most of WWII keeping the Axis from getting their hands on various supernatural super-weapons like he was doing in the 1930s, so they should have left it at that.

The Verdict

I expected it to suck. It didn't. Pleasantly surprised. 8.0 out of 10.