Archive for the ‘Dragons’ Category

Your Highness (2011)

 

YOUR HIGHNESS is one of the most strangely-reviled movies of the past couple years.  Why?  2011 was a year that inflicted upon us BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, HALL PASS, SUCKER PUNCH, COWBOYS & ALIENS, SOUL SURFER, a remake of THE THING, another BIG MOMMA movie, another TRANSFORMERS movie, a Justin Timberlake action movie, a Justin Timberlake romantic comedy, an Ashton Kutcher romantic comedy, a Russell Brand movie, a Kevin James movie, two Adam Sandler movies, and like three Tyler Perry movies.  Which, by the way, were totally redundant after the BIG MOMMA movie.  There’s plenty of horseshit to revile before getting all worked up over a harmlessly crude medieval weed-comedy.  You’re really going to tell me, after that Fassbender-length list of SHAME, that YOUR HIGHNESS is the one that turns your tummies?

 

behold!

 

Yes, internet, I loved this movie.  Sorry!  Was I not supposed to enjoy a silly-stupid sword-and-sorcery movie starring Danny McBride and James  Franco?  Because it kind of feels like they made it with me in mind.  It could be a fair ways better than it is, sure, but it’s still pretty fun.  Danny McBride, his co-writer Ben Best, and director David Gordon Green deserve our lifetime allegiance for EASTBOUND & DOWN, and James Franco (you know, from SPIDER-MAN 2 and MILK and 127 HOURS and many other admirable ventures) has done plenty to earn the benefit of the doubt in his own right.

 

Film Title: Your Highness

 

Franco plays the heroic warrior on a quest to save his true love (Zooey Deschanel), who has been stolen away by a powerful and disgusting wizard.  McBride is his boorish, self-centered younger brother, forced to accompany him on his quest by their father (Charles Dance, who is now on GAME OF THRONES but is best known to me from THE GOLDEN CHILD).  Franco can be an anarchic presence himself, but here he gamely and perfectly plays the over-earnest straight man to McBride’s loud-mouthed lout.  To me, Franco and McBride’s not-even-trying British period accents and sometimes-camaraderie/ sometimes-enmity are a total gas.  I also deeply, deeply love that the guys each get BEASTMASTER-style animal sidekicks.

 

Your Highness

 

The problem with this movie, I think, is that the villains are just too gross and not at all menacing.  In this kind of effects-based comedy, the bad guys ultimately need to be a little bit scary – they can’t be competing for punchlines, the way the bad guys are here.  Think of Gozer The Gozerian in GHOSTBUSTERS, think of David Lo Pan in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, think of Victor Maitland in BEVERLY HILLS COP.  Those are solid villains because they are played as if not entirely aware they’re in a comedy.  You really believe that they want to destroy the heroes.   If Justin Theroux and, in particular, Damian Lewis had been allowed to play it straight, I think YOUR HIGHNESS would have worked a lot better.

 

Charles Dance

 

It’s probably also true that the movie is a bit remedial when it comes to the matter of women.  Zooey Deschanel is game for whatever she’s asked to do in the movie, but ultimately this is a guys’ showcase.  The attempt to include Natalie Portman as a Xena-style warrior princess who helps the brothers out is a good impulse, but as it plays, she’s just another foil for McBride, a pong-paddle to his bouncing pink ball, or balls.

 

SNAKES

 

As it is, YOUR HIGHNESS is juvenile and a bit of a mess, but it still cracks me up.  If only for the fact that it has both a minotaur and a dragon, if only for the fact that I can’t be unsure that these guys didn’t come up with most of the ideas for the movie while watching WILLOW, if only for the scene with the Wise Wizard, which I still can  hardly wrap my mind around on account of how insanely funny it is to me, this movie entirely justifies its existence.

 

MINOTAUR

 

Maybe it’s just me and my weird sense of humor.  Maybe the idea of a $50 million studio movie where two movie stars talk to a really crappy puppet is only targeted to my hyper-specific sense of humor.

 

the great wize wizard

 

Or maybe a lot of people need to lighten the fuck up.  Could be either one. Just to be safe, smile!

@jonnyabomb

P.S.  If you like YOUR HIGHNESS, check out my review of 1982’s CONQUEST.  That’s a similar movie that is nearly as funny, but not even remotely on purpose.

And this has been an expanded version of a bit I did for my pal at Rupert Pupkin Speaks.  Check his site out!

Your Highness (2011) Your Highness (2011) your_highness_ver2

Your Highness (2011)

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AGE OF THE DRAGONS (2011)

I can’t speak for every dude who writes about movies on the internet, but as for me, it’s not like I don’t have any options at all as to how to spend my free time. Sure, I fit the stereotype of single and brainy, but I also bring plenty to the dating pool. I’m generally considered to be sweet, thoughtful, loyal, and giving. Most people find me funny. I’m certainly presentable, even considered outright attractive from some angles. I’m currently regularly-employed and employable. I’m terrific with kids and I’ll make a great father one day. Animals also love me (though not always cats). The ladies reading this may be asking, What’s the downside?

Well ladies, the answer may be that I’m addicted to movies. Addicted. Big-time. I don’t know why, but I can’t go more than a day without one. And there’s only so many times you can watch GOODFELLAS or PULP FICTION or BOOGIE NIGHTS or whatever finite number of acceptable classics that normal guys my age watch, before you start sniffing around the outskirts of what’s out there in the great beyond, movie-wise. Sometimes that search can result in a great discovery, and most other times it doesn’t.

When I saw a preview somewhere for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, I knew I was in trouble. Somebody made a version of MOBY DICK starring PREDATOR 2‘s Danny Glover as Melville’s Captain Ahab, in the relentless and dangerous pursuit, not of a great white whale, no, but instead, of a great white dragon.

Aw hell.

I’m gonna have to watch that.

RIGGS!

MOBY DICK is often cited as The Great American Novel. Every author is out there trying to write one, but Herman Melville did it almost two hundred years ago. The book is its own Great White Whale. It has influenced countless writers and their works, been adapted to film multiple times, and has many obvious and less obvious descendents in movies such as JAWS and ALIENS. MOBY DICK is so many things — a historical document detailing the whaling industry of its era, a lierary allegory, a character study of obsession and madness, a rousing adventure tale… It’s really good! You should read it.

For a book of more than six hundred pages, the main plot of MOBY DICK is perfectly simple: A young sailor named Ishmael and his friend Queequeg, an intimidating foreigner, get a job on a whaling ship called the Pequod. They meet the first, second, and third mates on the ship — Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, respectively — but it’s a while before they meet the ship’s captain. When he arrives, he basically takes over the book. Ahab is a vengeful Quaker (which is an oxymoron, for the record) out to destroy the white whale who, in an earlier encounter, scarred him and took his leg. The only question is how many of the crew members will survive his deranged quest.

I love this story — it kind of has an elemental appeal to me at my center. It’s based on a true story! I love stories about sea monsters. As a kid my family took summer vacations to some of the areas described in the book. I grew up obsessed with the whale at the Museum Of Natural History in New York. And technically I’m half Quaker, so I even get that part of it. All of this is a run-up to say that I have more than a passing familiarity with the source material for AGE OF THE DRAGONS, which is why I found it to be even more of a bizarre anomaly than I figured it was going to be.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is so remarkably bizarre precisely because of its fidelity to MOBY DICK. There is no question that the people who made AGE OF THE DRAGONS have read MOBY DICK, which is both what makes it strangely admirable and what makes it so weird. Let’s look at some of the similarities and the differences.

Well, besides, the obvious.

MOBY DICK.

MOBY DICK is about a large angry whale.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS.

AGE OF THE DRAGONS is about a fire-breathing dragon.

In AGE OF THE DRAGONS, the action is shifted from sea to land. The dragons can fly, but the men who hunt for them travel on land. (Sky-boats would have been a little too crazy. Duh.) Still, their choice of vehicle is in fact a boat.

Boat.

The boat does have wheels, so I guess that makes sense, and the terrain they cover is generally coated with blankets of snow, so technically the boat is travelling over expanses of water, but again, let’s not mince words here: This is fucking weird. I mean, if you want to get all film school on it, you could possibly attribute the snow boat to being an extended reference both obliquely and literally to Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO, another story of mad obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a fucking snow boat in a dragon-hunting movie.

Not only that, but the winter is apparently one of the utmost extremes, so you know what that means….

Ahab Snow Ninja

!!!SNOW NINJAS!!!

Snow Ninjas.

At every moment where I got anywhere near taking this movie seriously, somebody would show up dressed like a snow ninja and I’d have to chuckle. Which is totally fine. There isn’t anything at all wrong, from where I’m sitting, with a movie about dragon-fighting snow ninjas. But if you’re going to make a movie like that, you ought to have a sense of humor, and AGE OF THE DRAGONS is played for straights. It’s pretty dour and grim, missing the fact that Herman Melville had a satirical eye, having penned lines for MOBY DICK like “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”

But I guess the makers of AGE OF THE DRAGONS figured, if they were going to take the sense of humor out of MOBY DICK, they’d better put something else in, and what they settled on was — you guessed it — a pretty girl. Her name is Rachel, which, despite there being no character like her in MOBY DICK, actually does mean something in reference to the novel. (I think the Rachel is the name of one of the boats.) Here the character is Ahab’s daughter, who he took in after her family was killed by dragons. Ishmael takes a shine to her, I guess because she’s a better bunkmate than Queequeg, which Ahab doesn’t like but what did he think was gonna happen, really. The actress doesn’t resemble Danny Glover much, which I guess is a virtue because let’s face it, she’s only really in the movie for stuff like this:

Girl.

Outside of Danny Glover, there’s no one in this movie you’ve heard of before, except for Vinnie Jones. My British friends know Vinnie Jones from his soccer — sorry: football — career, and my American friends know him from SMOKIN’ ACES 2, X-MEN 3, and GARFIELD: A TALE OF TWO KITTIES. He plays Stubb in this movie, but not for long. A dragon breathes on him and he turns into a pile of dust. Sorry if that’s a spoiler. I don’t think anything like that happened in the Melville text, but I guess they only had Vinnie Jones budgeted for a couple days on this shoot. It doesn’t feel like an organic storytelling decision, is what I’m implying.

Vinnie.

Anyway the main reason I wanted to see this movie was to see Danny Glover acting weird and talking a lot about dragons, and in this respect I did not walk away disappointed. Basically Danny Glover hates dragons because when he was a young Danny Glover, he and his sister were walking through the woods and a dragon showed up. The dragon turned his sister into a pile of ashes like it did to Vinnie Jones, and it also burned Danny Glover up pretty bad, to the point where he can’t go out in direct sunlight. On one hand that’s a bummer, but on the other hand….

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

Danny Glover in Snow Ninja outfit.

As I was watching this movie, which has a lot of dull parts — really too many, for a movie that has dragons and Danny Glover dressed like a G.I. Joe character — I gave a lot of thought to Danny Glover, who is an actor I have a ton of affection for, but who has been really under-served by the movies, I think. He’s definitely a guy who has “important actor” status, but who hasn’t been in as many great things as he should or maybe could be.

Danny Glover High Points:

ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (Clint)

WITNESS (a rare villainous turn)

THE COLOR PURPLE (probably, I haven’t seen it)

LETHAL WEAPON (obviously)

A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Bill Duke version)

LONESOME DOVE

TO SLEEP WITH ANGER

THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS (funniest part of the movie)

DREAMGIRLS

Personally, I liked SILVERADO, PREDATOR 2, PURE LUCK, and BE KIND REWIND also, but I don’t know if those roles necessarily go on the highlight reel. (PURE LUCK is pretty bad, actually, but it’s a Martin Short movie, so.)

I guess the point I’m making is, for such a prestigious actor, there sure are a ton of movies like OPERATION DUMBO DROP, GONE FISHIN’, LETHAL WEAPON 4, and SAW, on that resume, which also includes an unfair amount of shitty TV shows. Of course Danny Glover has been in some great stuff, but not enough. He needs some Fincher or Mann or Spike or Spielberg in his future. I mean, of course I enjoyed seeing him like this —

Riggs!

— but there aren’t too many of me. I’m a guy who will spend this much time thinking about a version of MOBY DICK that has dragons: Through me does not necessarily pass the road towards Oscars and widespread critical acclaim. And even with that said, I’d probably rather see a sincere version of MOBY DICK than a silly one which I can only watch in the middle of the night when there’s no female presence around to stop me. There’s no reason why Danny Glover couldn’t be given a movie where he can play Captain Ahab for real. He shouldn’t be stuck playing some weird groaning Gollum-esque character lurching around in a cave in Utah at computer-animated dragons.

Seriously, you should see the part when he fights the great white dragon at the end and gets his leg caught in the harpoon — if only for a textbook definition of anti-climax. I mean, I haven’t said much about the effects of the movie: The production value is actually rather good — I liked the sets and the costumes and even a couple of the scenes of the dragons. The actors all take it as seriously as they’re asked to, and the music by J Bateman (either Jason or Justine, I’m not sure which) is better than average for a movie of this type.

But the movie’s pace is slack and all the good dragon bits all happen early on — it’s like the production blew their dragon wad early, and like a bad lover with no follow-through, skimped on the effects in the final scenes. Even Danny Glover turns into computer animation, a cluster of pixels being dragged away on the tail of a fake monster. If it wasn’t enough that he was asked to overact through the entire movie, he doesn’t even get to leave it with any dignity.

So AGE OF THE DRAGONS, sadly, probably not a thing I can recommend. But at least I learned a thing or two about myself.

I learned that all you have to do is say the word “dragons” and I will watch your movie. It’s a foolproof method of advertising. Everyone and their grandma use more common sales pitches such as “boobs” “monkeys” and “explosions” to lure me in, but not everyone promises “dragons” and that brings my eyes over, every time.

The other thing I learned is that if I had any brains at all, I would have just watched JAWS for the 57th time. So maybe strike “brainy” from that list of datable qualities I listed up top in reference to myself.

@jonnyabomb

 

Wanted to clue everyone in to a guest post I did for the terrific movie blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks, which has been inviting all kinds of well-travelled movie writers to contribute their lists of favorite quote-unquote “bad” movies.  (It’s all subjective, right?) 

I think you’ll enjoy this one.  I had a lot of fun putting it together.  I’m very proud to be featured on another site I enjoy, amongst some fun people.  You’ll have to click through to get to the meat of what I wrote, but I wanted to share some posters, still frames, and YouTube clips also, so scroll down for those.

>>>Read my list HERE!!!<<<

If you know me or have stopped by my site before, you know that this is hardly the end of my voyage into tremendous cinematic badness.  It’s only the beginning.

The journey continues! 

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb.

 

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Review originally filed to CHUD.com.

Been thinking about the 3-D format lately, due to Hugo.  Seems a good reason to review some thoughts from two years back. 

Avatar is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, even though you’ve absolutely seen this story many times before.  Is that a coy contradiction?  Is it a negative statement?  I hope not.  I think you can love something while still seeing and understanding its flaws.  Bottom line up top:  I loved watching Avatar and I entirely recommend the experience.  I saw Avatar on the IMAX screen in 3-D, and I can’t imagine wanting to see it any other way.  This movie is meant to play big.  It’s supposed to fill your peripheral vision and take you to places no one’s ever been.  It does that.  It takes you to an imaginary planet called Pandora, drops you directly into the atmosphere, and alongside lead character Jake Sully, forces you to experience a new world for the first time.  The world is convincingly detailed and absorbing.  If only for the thorough immersion in a foreign landscape it affords – hell, if only for the strange and intimidating animals that populate it – Avatar is a good movie, even a special one.  But is it a great movie?  I’m not sure.  What we ask our greatest movies to do is to make us believe in things that aren’t real and to care about characters who never were.  For the most part, Avatar made me believe.  I only wish it could’ve made me care more.  That didn’t stop me from loving the movie, but it does keep me from loving it unconditionally.

James Cameron has entertained and influenced a generation of film nerds.  I’m very much one of them.  His two Terminator films, in particular, are a model of how to balance explosive action filmmaking with relatable and sympathetic characters.  Aliens, his entry in the Alien franchise, remains my personal favorite of the four.  The Abyss is an underrated film, full of suspense and wonder and blessed with arguably Cameron’s best lead actor, Ed Harris. True Lies remains a pleasant diversion, a mix of old-school Hollywood playfulness and new-school Hollywood spectacle.  Titanic is not my favorite of his movies, but a serious filmmaker wouldn’t overlook Cameron’s ability to mix effects with story and to orient both characters and audience in a believable landscape.  If you’re interested in action cinema, it’s foolish to overlook Cameron.  He’s just plain a canon filmmaker when it comes to action and believable sci-fi environments.  One could convincingly argue that he’s not much of a writer of dialogue, as Titanic in particular suggests, and Avatar unfortunately corroborates, but Cameron can make the places seem real in a way that few other filmmakers can, to the point where it’s easy to forgive the frequent clichés of speech.

What makes Avatar a problematic movie is that the clichés extend beyond the dialogue to the story itself.  A corrupt, greedily imperialistic society sends a pale-faced emissary into harm’s way – the hero gets to know and fall in love with a native culture of differently-colored people who worship more earthly and simple spiritual things.  Because this is a Hollywood film, that love is personified in female form.  While the hero proves himself and wins over the family of his love interest, she has another suitor who becomes his fierce rival.  Eventually, the hero is faced with the decision to stand with his adopted culture or to return to the civilization he once knew.  A friend of mine described Avatar as “Dances With Wolves on mescaline.”  He’s right, and it’s unavoidable:  Dances With Wolves is certainly a movie that Avatar thematically resembles to a tee, but this kind of stuff goes all the way back to John Ford and Anthony Mann (see Broken Arrow), and has only continued and proliferated, in the Western genre particularly, as feelings of racial apology have increased over the years.  It’s not limited to Westerns and Native Americans – movies as diverse in content as Witness, The Fast And The Furious, and The Karate Kid Part 2 all traffic in similar scenarios – but Avatar so specifically evokes the Native American situation that it just has to be discussed in any serious discussion of the movie.  The Na’vi, the nine-foot-tall blue-skinned alien race who are at the center of Avatar, ride horse-like creatures barebacked, wear their hair in ponytails and their loincloths in thongs, and pray gently to creatures they’ve killed for food.  Their leader is played by Wes Studi, Hollywood’s go-to Native American actor, who really deserves to work more often in more varied parts.  (His wife is played by CCH Pounder and his chosen successor played by Laz Alonzo, both great African-American actors whose casting adds another layer of racial confusion to the film.)

My issue is this:  The treatment of the Native American people by the United States is something that this country has never properly addressed.  It involves crimes of race and history that there may never be any atoning for, even if atonement were possible.   It’s not an escapist topic.  You can’t disappear into a movie if you’re thinking of the mistreatment of the Native American people throughout the entire movie.  If Cameron wanted to probe these questions with Avatar, he should have acknowledged the complexity of the issue.  Unfortunately, when it comes to matters of race and history, Avatar’s conclusions are disappointingly simplistic.  I don’t want to spoil any of the plot details here, so if you disagree with me, please feel free to let me know in the comments or at the provided addresses where we can continue the discussion.  But when I started thinking about the politics of Avatar, I started to think that it makes District 9 look like all the more of an impressive achievement.  If you feel the need to slip real-world subtext into your escapist science-fiction film, you ought to make sure it’s subtext worth stating (or re-stating) in the first place.

The other, possibly greater, problem for me in unreservedly adoring Avatar is that its lead characters didn’t resonate within me as deeply as the protagonists of earlier Cameron films did.  Since there is a love story at the heart of Avatar, this is a problem.  Think of the tragic one-night-only true love of Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the fierce maternal instinct that bonds Ripley to Newt in Aliens, Virgil Brigman pleading with Lindsey Brigman to return to life in The Abyss, young John Connor pleading with the T-800 not to leave in Terminator 2, even Jack risking everything for Rose in Titanic.  Some writers believe that an audience must fall in love with the two participants in a movie love story in order to truly buy into it.  I suppose that’s true, but for me, all I ask is that when I watch the movie, I believe that the two people love each other.  I’m no Kate Winslet fan, but DiCaprio makes me believe that he loves her in Titanic, so I cared.  I certainly believed in and related to all of the other examples I’ve just quoted.  I really can’t say the same for Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

She’s nine feet tall, blue, and as much like a cat as a person.  He’s confined to a wheelchair and quintessentially human.  The one moment where they appear in frame together, a dramatic moment late in the game, is unavoidably humorous.  I was taking the movie pretty seriously by then and I still couldn’t suppress a chuckle.  A Woody Allen/Diane Keaton moment at best.  Short guy/tall chick is just internally received as comedy by modern filmgoers; that’s just how it is.  Believe me, as a vertically challenged man myself, I wish it weren’t.

Here now, some words from James Cameron himself, in the pages of this month’s Maxim, when asked about how much effort was put into making Neytiri look hot:

“…We figured the story wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to do her.”

 That’s a somewhat telling statement.  I will admit that I spent about an hour searching for a glimpse of blue nipple, but to me, the most exciting moment of the movie in that regard was when Michelle Rodriguez showed up in that tank top.  And I’m not much of a Michelle Rodriguez guy.  In other words, when it comes to the giant blue cat lady, I don’t want to “do her.” At all.  So I guess the story doesn’t really work.  As talented and convincing as the voice actors are and as brilliantly believable as the movements of the Na’vi are, there are still moments where you break free of the illusion and remember that you are watching a computer-aided performance.  For me personally, that moment was the sex scene.  Again, I chuckled ever so briefly – I felt for a moment like the entire packed theater was watching that weird Japanese anime porn.  The thought of that scene scored to the end-credits Leona Lewis love ballad just seemed comical to me.  As much as I liked everything else about the movie, I just wasn’t hot for the cat lady.  I didn’t take her seriously enough.  Ultimately, nothing beats the real un-animated Zoe Saldana.  And so on.

 

All of that constructive criticism out of the way, there is so much about Avatar that I loved.  The magnitude of imagination on display from Cameron and his technical crew is astoundingly thorough.  I loved the meticulous design of the various spaceships, equipment, and weapons.  Predictably, I loved the creatures the most.  At its most transcendent moments, Avatar feels like an Animal Planet documentary filmed in your wildest dreams.  I loved the dragon birds and the snake panthers and the rhino dinosaurs and the jellyfish spirits.  The human cast is uniformly good, despite my earlier stated reservations about how some of them were used.  In particular, I loved seeing Sigourney Weaver in a movie like this again – there are few actors who can be so firm and sympathetic and genuine amidst such unbelievable backgrounds.  And those backgrounds, particularly in the IMAX/3-D format, are breath-taking.  You truly feel the depth and scope of the world created.  As dangerous as the jungles and skies of Pandora prove to be, you still feel like diving right in.  That’s not just a case of me loving the format – the craft gone into the movie is what achieves that; the format only accentuates the effect.  Cameron has done something special here.

Avatar is a movie that demands to be seen by everyone who truly loves movies.  It’s one transitional moment in a probable string of many future transitional moments for this mode of mass entertainment.  The writer in me sees the flaws, small controversies, and problem areas, but the rest of me is damned if any of that stops me from enjoying what was otherwise such a great trip to the movies.

[December 20, 2009]

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