Friday, October 12, 2018

Score Sample: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I've done a few Halloween themed score samples over the years on this blog. So how did I manage to avoid putting some Danny Elfman up? Not sure, but it is time to remedy that. I picked one of Elfman's most gothic scores. It is one that has all the hallmarks of Elfman's style, but blown up huge and dark, with those haunting vocals and imposing proportions. That means we get some Sleepy Hollow music today.

While I'm not the biggest fan of the film, I can't deny that the powerhouse score is one of Elfman's best from the 1990s. It matches the over the top visuals that Tim Burton concocted for the film. It builds on the suspense and horror the situations in a deliciously in your face way, and it is a lot of fun to listen to. Lots of great tracks to explore on the soundtrack, but I'm going with the end titles which are some of Elfman's best.

So here is End Credits from Sleepy Hollow composed by Danny Elfman.


Friday, October 5, 2018

The Devil’s Candy (2015)

One of my favorite quotes from MST3K comes from Pod People, and it goes something like this “What is it about the gates of hell that compels people to walk right in?” It is a valid question and one that is often explored in horror films. But sometimes the gates of hell aren’t physical, sometimes they are in the mind. This film takes a look at that concept with a helping of heavy metal, because Satan is pretty metal.

Summary:

The film starts as many horror films do, with a family moving into home with a bit of a history. A double murder occurred in the house. Jesse (Ethan Embry) loves the home’s barn so he can paint his huge canvas’s and listen to heavy metal as inspiration. His wife Astrid (Sheri Appleby) and daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) are a little less enthused dealing with a greater distance to drive to work and a new school.

But everyone agrees that the house has a real problem attracting the imposing and obviously disturbed Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Ray is hearing a voice and it is driving him to do some horrible things. But the twist is, Ray used to live in this house and the voice started there. Too soon, Jesse starts to hear the same voice and his paintings become more and more deranged. What strange connection does Jesse have with Ray? And how will it doom this family when they come to understand the horror of The Devil’s Candy?

Good Points:
  • Creates an eerie atmosphere and building dread
  • The film keeps the viewer guessing at how dark it is going to turn
  • Impressive performances by the entire cast 

Bad Points:
  • Feels a bit choppy in places
  • There are small elements of the story that don’t seem to have a payoff
  • If you aren’t a fan of loud guitars then some of the music and sound design might aggravate you

Overall:

Liked the way the film portrays the corruption that seems to spread from the home, and creates this feeling of dread. We see early on what happened to Ray and how he is (not) managing it. But as we get to know the family, we fear for them. The performance are what make this work, we like the dysfunctional family, and we fear Ray. The movie feels a bit uneven in places, and has a few elements that don’t really pay off, but overall the camerawork and pacing build the horror until you are never sure just how dark this movie is going to get. Well worth checking out if you are in the mood for some heavy metal dread.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals:  4
Sound: 4
Acting:  4
Script:  4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

I think it is safe to say that Star Trek Into Darkness wasn’t what most people expected in the follow up to the 2009 reboot film. Even though I enjoyed the film and found a lot to get behind, I was still disappointed that the movie went in the political thriller direction. For the third film in the franchise I was hoping the writers would get us into actual space exploration with the adventures and moral quandaries that tie to it. The first good sign was that the third film was going to take place during the five-year mission into deep space. The first concerning sign was that it was going to be directed by a man known for his work on the Fast and Furious franchise. Maybe this film was going to go a little too far Beyond.

Summary:

About half way into the five-year mission into the frontiers of space and Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling a bit of malaise. He struggles to live up to his father’s famous heroism. It is as if all the exploring isn’t yielding anything new for the crew. To top it off, his birthday is just around the corner. Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) tries to cheer the captain up with some fine liquor and the prospect of docking at the impressive new star base: The Yorktown.

While at the Yorktown the crew is contacted by a survivor of a downed survey mission deep in a mysterious nebula not too far away. Kirk gathers his people and hurries off to help. While exploring the nebula, the Enterprise is attacked and decimated by a swarm of alien vessels. Most of the crew is captured and brought before a being called Krall (Idris Elba) who is crafting a dastardly scheme to wipe out the Federation presence in space – and he’s going to start with The Yorktown. It is up to the Enterprise crew to work together with a new ally, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) to figure out Krall’s plan and stop it . All the series regulars return to their roles including Spock (Zachary Quinto), Sulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Checkov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg). Will this be the Enterprise’s final Star Trek Beyond?

Good Points:
  • Includes some great moments for the crew, especially Spock and McCoy
  • Sports impressive visual effects and sound design
  • The action scenes are well executed 

Bad Points:
  • Focuses so much on action that we lose the wonder and scope in the story
  • Some may find the 20th century touches to be too distracting
  • Feels obligatory instead of special

Overall:

This film is a solid entry in the franchise, but never rises to more than that. The acting is very good as usual, and the main crew has some great moments of interplay. But the main antagonist and his plot aren’t terribly interesting, although they provide some interesting thematic elements. Overall it is the rigid focus on action over all else that hurts the film. It keeps Beyond from being all the memorable or engaging. Not a bad film, but a hollow one.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Take a good look now, because she isn't going to look this good for long.
I planned to write about Star Trek Beyond a lot sooner than I actually did. But I kept running into two problems. The first was that I wasn’t terribly motivated to watch the film again: never a good sign. The second was that I was having trouble separating what the film was trying to be versus the film I wanted it to be. Those two things were just not going to line up no matter how badly I wanted them to. What frustrates me most about the movie is that all the ingredients are in place to make this entry in the franchise one of the best, but time and again decisions were made that keep the film swerving from what Iwanted it to be.

We weren’t going to get a true adventure of the Enterprise on her mission. I wanted to see something like a supersized episode of the series, but with major impacts to the crew and even the Federation. It didn’t have to include an antagonist at all (I would have cheered if it didn’t’), but it would pose a challenge to them and force them to work together to solve the problem. Or maybe the outcome wouldn’t be quite what they hoped. They could have taken an existing episode of The Original Series and adapted it, twisting it for the new timeline. Or they could have come up with something original and intriguing. Elements of this do happen in Beyond, but not in the way hoped.

I think the little guy just photobombed this screenshot.
But let’s put aside all that for now. As I mentioned, this movie had a different target in sight and let’s see how well it works with that target in mind. But what is that target? Well it really feels like they were looking to crank up the action and intensity in Star Trek Beyond. They were shooting for some big budget visual spectacle and they were looking to keep all the members of the crew involved in the challenge and use all of them to stop Krall. They were also hoping that Idris Elba’s natural gravitas would convey through the heavy makeup and provide a villain for the ages.

When it comes to the visuals, Star Trek Beyond brings us some really amazing stuff. As a whole the revamped series has done a great job with the visual effects. This film goes for some really dynamic and interesting sequences that require a lot of impressive visuals to pull them off. You have The Yorktown itself, a sprawling space fortress encased by a clear sphere. It looks spectacular, and when we get some close up travel sequences through it near the end, all that detail and work really comes through.

Nice shot of The Yorktown through the Enterprise view screen.
I also like the insect-like design of Krall’s swarm ships and artifacts on the lost planet itself. They give us a new and otherworldly culture to examine (if you can slow things long enough to get a good look at the design). Krall’s soldiers and the antagonist himself are formidable designs as well, vaguely reptilian but with a mix of other looks reflecting all the castaways left on the planet. Jaylah is probably the most visually dynamic design with her white skin and stark black markings. But we get several non-human species in this film and they all look pretty interesting, and very tied to the look of the aliens from the previous two films.

Where the visuals really step things up a notch are the creatively conceived and executed action scenes.Star Trek Beyond is packed with them and they offer plenty of wow factor to the film. The attack and destruction of the Enterprise is unlike anything we have really seen in Star Trek before (and admit it we’ve seen The Enterprise destroyed quite a few times now). They fluid motion of the swarm as they rip the ship apart is really something else. Later in the film while Kirk and Chekov search the downed Enterprise saucer for key information another action scene erupts. This one ends with the mammoth saucer flipping over as its thrusters fire. It creates a constantly moving and dangerous battleground for our heroes, and a smashing doom for one of our villains.

Um... yeah, this is a thing that happens. Did they learn nothing from the
dune buggy incident in Nemesis?
Jaylah’s holographic projectors play with illusions in the film, and that makes for a couple of interesting action scenes. It was fun to see multiple Jaylah’s kicking butt all around a befuddled Scotty. But it is the use of them with the motorcycles that really creates one of the most unusual scenes in any Star Trek film. Of course it is also one of the scenes that some fans of the franchise feel goes a little too Fast and Furious and less Beyond. I think it works well enough and leads up to an exciting finale for that scene.

Then you have the escape of The Franklin, the battle against the swarm and the final threat of Krall on board The Yorktown. These action scenes occur one after the other and give us so many different and exciting visuals that it really is impressive. We have never seen Star Trek tackle this kind of action before, hell even Star Wars would be hard pressed in this comparison. The finale involving shifting gravity with Kirk and Krall facing off is really handled well, and ratchets up some nice tension.

The villains lair has a very interesting look.
Director Justin Lin continues with Abram’s constantly moving camera work for Beyond, and combined with his well-executed action it all works great. Lin also opts to return to the brighter color palate of the 2009 film, and I’m really pleased with that. This movie is overall much less dower and grim than the previous one in a visual sense. That is pretty impressive especially considering they destroy The Enterprise in this film.

Matching the visuals is the sound work. Everything here sounds like Star Trek as envisioned in the modern age. Added to it are all the action-oriented sound effects. That means plenty of explosions, metal ripping, ships zipping by and phasers firing. We get some great rumbles as The Franklin attempts to take off. The swarm provides some of the most dynamic sound of the whole series. It’s just a real treat of sound design and Beyond’s action focus gives us plenty to chew on.

Bones knows that Spock is in serious trouble when he sees the Vulcan smile.
We can’t have a modern Star Trek film without Michael Giacchino returning to compose the score. This means he brings back his main theme from the 2009 film, as well as the Spock theme created for that film (although it is hardly used). None of the new material for Into Darkness makes an appearance, but that makes sense considering all the new themes for that film were specific to characters in that movie. Instead we get three new themes.

Sadly his theme for Jaylah isn’t all that interesting. It feels pretty light and never makes much of an impression. Giacchino gives it a couple of full-throated renditions during the film, but most of the time we hear it in fragments. I wasn’t even aware she had a theme until I got the score and heard the suite version of it.

"Sorry Krall, you're uglier than Thanos."
More impressive and often used in the film is Krall’s theme. Like many of Giacchino’s villain themes, this one is simple but powerful. It is played in many guises throughout the film, sometimes flowing like the swarm, other times bombastic and oppressive. It is a malleable theme and one that suits the villain quite well.

The best new material is for the star base Yorktown. Here Giacchino takes a page from James Horner and creates an almost romantic track for this location. It is lovely and can be adapted with choir to have an impressive power behind it. Giacchino gets to use the theme as bookends, and it provides a bit of a respite from some of the more bombastic action tracks. The performances of The Yorktown theme are the highlight of the score and well worth seeking out on their own.

She doesn't look at that friendly here, but she is one of the good guys.
As a whole the score to Star Trek Beyond is a solid effort. Giacchino does some spectacular stuff with his main theme for the series, really putting it through the ringer during the destruction of the Enterprise sequence. But it is the Yorktown theme that is most memorable musical concept for the score. To me it is the weakest of the three Star Trek scores he created, but it is still very good and well worth adding to your Star Trek film music collection. As always it supports the film very well.

The cast of Star Trek Beyond nails the roles, with the material they are given. Pine feels like a more mature and in control Kirk, closer to the version we are familiar with in the series. He adds a weariness to the part that is much different from what we saw in the previous films. The rest of the cast fills in the parts we are familiar with; a bit more time is spent with Scotty and his interaction with Jaylah. We also get some wonderful sequences with Urban’s McCoy and Quinto’s Spock with the banter that we expect between these two based on their interaction in the original series. It makes me realize how much I missed that kind of dialouge in the previous films.

"Uh, you're not gonna hurt me with that, are you lass?" "Only if
you keep calling me lass."
For the new characters, the performances are solid. We have Boutella doing a very good job as Jaylah. She gets the most screen time of the new characters and gets to develop her personality a bit more. Her interactions with the crew are handled well, and she does a very good job in her hand-to-hand fight scenes.

Idris Elba is fine as Krall. The part doesn’t give him all that much to do other than threaten and glower for the bulk of the film. When we finally get his backstory and the film allows Elba to do some more with the role it is almost too late. By that point the film is moving at breakneck speed and can’t afford to slow down to allow Elba’s talents to shine. In some ways it is a thankless role and one that just about any good actor could have handled, no need to get one of Elba’s talents. I’m guessing there was more to the character before rewrites and editing whittled him down so much.

"Ok that is a little too strange for a strong new world."
The script is the main issue for the film. Star Trek Beyond came out on the fiftieth anniversary of the whole Star Trek franchise. As such, I think a lot of fans were expecting something celebratory and impressive. Something that encapsulated everything they loved about Star Trek. But that is a tall order for any film, and in most cases they can’t measure up to it. Just see how Die Another Day and Spectre were handled for key anniversaries for the James Bond franchise.

For a lot of fans the script to Beyond didn’t really capture much of the spirit of Star Trek. But what defines Star Trek is different for many fans. Instead it felt like the creators were looking for a new audience with this film, one that was more focused on over the top action set pieces and cool characters than the wonders of space exploration or a thematic look at the human journey. I’ve seen some folks accuse Paramount looking bring in big audiences in from overseas (specifically China, going by the huge Chinese corporations credited in the opening of the film) and thus reworking the script to suit the potential new audience.

Star Trek doughnuts! You'll love 'em!
But Star Trek Beyond feels like a creation that is trying too hard to please everyone and ends up not really pleasing anyone. Fans of the classic series don’t feel like the film represented what they wanted. Fans of the new cast from 2009 didn’t get a whole lot of time to spend with them (since most of the movie moves from action set piece to action set piece). Finally you have the new audiences that were supposed to flock to this film for the big spectacle, but were not given a real reason to care about any of these characters.

A good example of this is the destruction of The Enterprise. It was included for a number of reasons. First because the Enterprise was destroyed in Star Trek III, and since this is the third film of the new series, there is some interesting symmetry there. Second, it made for an amazing action scene. Third it would raise the stakes in the narrative, making it nearly impossible for the crew to escape the planet.

Um, you dropped a little something back there.
But Beyond stumbles here. Yes The Enterprise was destroyed in Star Trek III, but it was also destroyed in Generations and in the last two movies alone we’ve seen the ship take a hell of a beating. Seeing massive destruction on board the ship and to the ship doesn’t have the punch it should. This is compounded because we have only spent a couple films with this Enterprise. So seeing her desteroyed will not have the same punch as the same action occurring in the previous films, because both of those ships had years and years of television episodes aboard her. And finally, this film suffers from the same issue that Into Darkness had with the “death” of Kirk. It is resolved so easily that there is no time for us to feel any loss. In the 1980s we had to wait years and through the bulk of The Voyage Home before seeing the “A” edition of The Enterprise. Here is happens during an epilogue.

Beyond does do some things right. It gives us a few moments of character interplay that works great. We get a thematic core about the power of unity and cooperation versus hate and divisiveness. You don’t really get more Star Trek than that. It gives each character a moment: to save the day, or come up with a clever plan, or be a key actor in their scene. And yes, it has some impressive sci-fi spectacle moments that are hard to top.

And Kirk crashes the Franklin too. Just keep him away from star ships!
Yet the film stumbles time and again. Krall’s motivation is interesting, but delivered in such a throw away manner that it become unimportant. He is a threat because he hurts people and plans to hurt more. But his presence is not really felt in the film, despite the fact you have Idris Elba playing the part. And by writing a story that centers around the actions of an antagonist, you need to do the work to make that antagonist feel dangerous and ever present. Beyond never manages that, and I will say that Into Darkness did a better job building up Khan, even though he was a retread villain.

On some level the movie is entertaining, and fun popcorn entertainment at that. It does have nods to all the previous films and even to some of the episodes from The Original Series (I’m looking at you HUGE GREEN HAND). Director Justin Lin did an outstanding job with the action scenes. They are some of the best of the series and he creates a great pace for the film. It never slogs, it balances the humor and surprises pretty well. He never really lets up off the gas once the swarm attacks the Enterprise, and yeah, that is an impressive feat.

See! The huge green hand from "Who Mourns for Adonais"!
But does it make a good Star Trek film? Well, good is about as far as we get here. I think most of us were hoping for great. The shackles were off and the alpha quadrant was wide open to explore. What we got was an action packed thrill ride that ended up feeling a bit empty by the end. Star Trek Beyond will join Insurrection and The Search for Spock as solid entries in the series, but not ones that you revisit all that often. If this is the final voyage with this crew, it is a bit sad, because I think they were capable of much more. But at the same time, it was an enjoyable journey, and there is always a place for that.


"So, who is up to save some whales?"
Had to include this nod to the poster to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Movie Musing - What Do We Want from a Star Trek Film?

Patrick (H) Williams created a wonderful video essay about What do we want from a Star Wars movie? It hit on all the elements that he thinks people want in their Jedi fueled franchise films, and why The Last Jedi was such a divisive film. But it got me thinking, that the same question could be asked to the other huge space opera franchise out there: Star Trek.

Boldly brandishing belt buckles.
For decades Paramount seems to be a bit confused with what fans and the general audience want in their Star Trek films. The results have been a whole batch of films with mixed reviews over the last couple decades. Sure Star Trek (2009) seemed to hit a sweet spot of sorts, but much likeThe Force Awakens it felt like the start of something, a grounding of the Star Trek universe that was going to pay off in future films.

"Is it supposed to do that? I don't think it is supposed to do that."
For many people Into Darkness and Beyond did little to fulfill the promise set out by the first film. But the big question remains, what are we looking for in a Star Trek film? I know some folks just want the same things they are looking for in any space adventure film. But I usually expect a bit more.

It's all smiles and giggles until someone mentions "The Last Jedi".
1.    Solid, memorable and meaningful character interaction. One of the best elements of every Star Trek series or film is the interaction between the crew. Their reactions to the problems in front of them, their ability to work together (or not) is the source of much of the joy of Star Trek. Some of the most memorable films have great interaction between the characters, be it Khan, Kirk and Spock or Picard, Data and the Borg Queen. When Star Trek is at its best, it is because the characters are written and acted well.

"Drop the stupid script and back away slowly."
2.    Events and plots that impact the characters in a big way, or the world of Star Trek in a big way. These are movies after all, and we expect the film to have stakes that feel like they need a movie size canvas to tell. It is one of the reasons why Star Trek (2009) feels more important than the sequels, because the events in that film have major consequences. It is also why First Contact feels more satisfying than Insurrection

"I thought you said they dropped the stupid script."
3.    A sense of wonder about space travel. Now I admit this has been missing from a lot of the Star Trek films over the years. But it is one of the reason I adore The Motion Picture so much. That movie has this immense sense of scale. It feels larger than life and wondrous all at once. We need more of those moments in these films. Because in my mind Star Trek acknowledges the enormity of the task of exploring the universe and finding our place in it.

"Are we having a moment? It feels like we are having a moment."
4.    Themes about our place in the universe. This is the primary thematic difference between Star Wars and Star TrekStar Wars is mythic and most of its themes deal with ones familiar to us from myths and legends. It is much more of a fantasy narrative. But Star Trek focuses on humanity’s place in the universe and our journey through it. The best Star Trek films fashion their narratives to get you thinking about humanity. Even Nemesis for all its faults, tried to tie back to nature versus nurture. The newer films seem so focused on plot and spectacle they forget the core exploration of this theme.

Are they really ready for the final frontier?
5.    It needs to showcase how the diverse crew comes together to solve a problem. In the end, as much the movies want us to believe it comes down to Kirk or Spock, or Picard or Data. The best episodes (and films) give key moments to the whole crew. Everyone gets a moment to shine and the mission would fail if they all didn’t give it their best shot.

They captured Kubla, or Shaka, or Sherlock...
So those are the elements I’m looking for in a Star Trek film. No, I don’t need a great villain. No I don’t need massive starship battles or motorcycles zipping around. No I don’t need Khan to show up again. I just need a solid space exploration tale well told. Include these five elements and you ware well on your way to making a great Star Trek film, no matter what continuity you decide to use.
 
"Is that a breakdancing Gorn, or did I hit my head harder than I thought?"
-->
How about you? What would you like to see in your Star Trek film?

Friday, September 14, 2018

And Then This Happened... Star Trek: The Original Series

When it comes to exploring strange new worlds you have to make sure dress appropriately. It helps to be color coded, so you know if you are going to be the first to die on the away mission. Always make sure you have enough room in the slacks. This comes in handy when rolling away from enemy creatures, you won't tear the seat of your pants. Yes, the rolling does help!

But most of all don't dress like you just stepped out of the 1960s version of Ivanhoe because that kind of "uniform" is just going to draw attention to the fact that you are, in fact, an alien.

Well leave it to the crew of the Enterprise to make a tactical blunder here... or did they? Provide a caption to this moment from the classic episode Shore Leave.

And then this happened...


Friday, September 7, 2018

Score Sample: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

When it comes to the music to the Star Trek films you actually have a great pool of music to enjoy. Of course my favorite work comes from Jerry Goldsmith and his scores for five of the films of the series (up to 13 films as of this writing). But you have a lot of other excellent composers chiming with some top notch work. Lately we've had Michael Giacchino giving us a thrilling new theme of for the Enterprise, as well as some propulsive action tracks.

One composer who really put his stamp on the series was James Horner, who unleashed an amazing score for The Wrath of Khan. This was early in his career and the young composer knocked it out of the park, creating some of the most accessible and engaging music of the film series. It was no wonder that the producers brought him back for the third film, The Search for Spock.

Horner revisited his heroic main theme, created some new material for the Klingons and evolved the sound he created for Spock into a vulcan motif for this film. The Vulcan material goes in the opposite direction from Goldsmith's "logical" approach. There is tremendous feeling and mystery in the Vulcan music in this score, and it creates one of my favorite tracks from the series called Returning to Vulcan. The film version covers our heroes return journey to the planet with the body of Spock to reunite his spirit with the flesh. The film version is excellent, but I love the additional emotion that Horner crafts in the concert suite version on the album.

So here is Returning to Vulcan from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock composed by James Horner. Enjoy!


Thursday, August 30, 2018

Movie Musing - The Magic is Gone

I’ve obviously blogged quite a bit about Excalibur and the opening scenes already. But I wanted to explore a strange phenomenon that occurred with films based on the Arthurian legends for the last couple of decades. For a lot of folks Excalibur is the definitive film version of the legend. But Hollywood is always eager to churn out films with familiar characters and situations. In theory, that familiarity entices viewers to come to the theaters and watch the film.

Often the creative forces behind the camera have a different idea. They are not content to make the same movie over and over (can't say I blame them). They will want to shake things up a bit and bring a new twist to the old story. When you are talking about something as old a King Arthur, it is hard to imagine a new twist that hasn't already been done. Mark Twain did time travel and King Arthur back in 1889.

The Arthurian legend provides plenty of stories and characters to tap into, as well as numerous versions of the familiar stories. You can focus only on the love triangle. You can focus on Merlin and the magic. You can focus on the Quest for the Holy Grail. You can select another knight’s story to explore like Gawain and the Green Knight, or Sir Tristan’s love for Isolde. Lancelot has a ton of adventures on his own and some of those are bound to make for exciting films. Or you can select one of the many other knights who manage to get mentioned in Malory’s Le Morte de’ Arthur. Who wouldn't want to see The Many Adventures of Sir Griflet.

No need to fight about it, you both look ridiculous.
But for some reason Hollywood used a different tactic during the 1990s and 2000s. In those years we had three films based in the legends. First Knight focused on the love triangle and turned Arthur and Genevere’s marriage into one of political gain. The other two attempted to place Arthur and his knights firmly in history, specifically at the end of the Roman Empire. King Arthur, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean and Top Gun fame, brought an action heavy version of the story. It was gritty, and dirty and packed with action. The Last Legion went for a similar angle trying to work a more historically believable scenario and putting Colin Firth in the lead role of the man who would become Uther Pendragon. None of these films did all that well and are essentially forgotten by most folks (except film music fans who will tell you how entertaining the scores are with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer and Patrick Doyle working on them).

No the sword isn't helping, I still don't buy it.
You could attribute a bunch of reasons for this. Each film has some serious faults on display. First Knight throws Richard Gere into the role of Lancelot, and he looks about as out of place in medieval armor you expect him to. King Arthur looks so dower and grim that you don’t see a hint of any of the adventure or thrills you would expect in this kind of story. The Last Legion also had some odd casting and was poorly marketed.

With all the grit and realism flying around, it is no
wonder the movie looks so drab.
The main reason I found these films frustrating is the fact that they ignore the magic inherent in the legend. These films try to ground Arthur and his knights. They try to explain all the “magic” in practical and sensible ways. Merlin isn’t a sorcerer (if he even appears in the film) but he’s a druid or trickster. Excalibur is a normal Roman sword that just happens to have some Latin writing on it that could be mistaken for the word, Excalibur. Holy Grail? Who needs it. Those wonderfully weird moments form Malory’s epic where omens appear, or people transform, or the oddly wonderful Questing Beast taunts the knights. None of that to see here. We are going for realism... in a King Arthur movie.

Guinevere lets out a mighty yawp.
Are these movies ashamed to embrace the fantasy of what is essentially (and maybe quintessentially) a fantasy story? Can you really have these characters without the magic? Maybe. But then you have to have all the other elements working. Clearly that wasn’t happening in any of these adaptations.

Ok, James Franco as Tristan may have been
worse casting than Richard Gere as Lancelot... maybe.
I’ve given First Knight the most chances over the years. I keep wanting it to work, because all the story elements are in place. Even though Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into overdrive to make it all work, the movie ends up lifeless and dull for a good portion of the film. Part of it is the lack of chemistry between Gere and just about everyone else in the movie. But I feel the lack of magic removes anything that makes it stand out from a standard medieval epic. You could have a similar story with differently named characters and it would probably be just as effective.

Does anything about this image remind you of King Arthur?
The other two films came out in the post-Dark Knight/Casino Royale world. Everything had to be realistic and gritty. I guess Jackson’s amazing adaptation of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films had taken up all the magic Hollywood could handle. So we get these two films that are “historically accurate”, except that historians can’t agree if Arthur was a real person and if so, who he was. Both films take major liberties with all kinds of historical details. It opens up the Arthurian legend to a bunch of scrutiny that isn’t needed. We shouldn’t be distracted by the fact that we have end of the Empire era Romans running around in the incorrect armor in front of a castle that is clearly build in the late middle ages. There is no point to that. Neither of these movies is all that fun to watch. The spirit of adventure or romance are gone. It is all grim action and serious growling of silly lines.

"Smile kid, at least Uwe Boll isn't directing this."
To not embrace the magic and fantasy is to miss one of the key reasons for the appeal of these stories. We want to see and experience the fantastic. We want to see the unbreakable sword pulled from the stone. We want to see Merlin casting spells. We want to see the dangers of the mysterious forests filled with bizarre creatures. We expect the Holy Grail. We expect the Lady of the Lake. We expect the magic.

I think they are both disappointed in Camelot's "grandeur".
While the recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword bombed in theaters, at least it looked like it embraced the fantasy. It is obviously more inspired by Game of Thrones and the Marvel franchise, but that is another issue altogether. But it somehow managed to look more monochromatic and drab than the Bruckheimer King Arthur, a feat in itself.

These stories are timeless because they explore timeless themes. The three films from the 90s and 00s do accomplish this to a degree. But they also ignore the key elements that make them so beloved and well known. I think this may have hurt them in the long run.
"At some point, someone is going to look back fondly at this
version of Merlin."
Check out Patrick H Willem's YouTube channel for an excellent video essay about Hollywoods obsession with Robin Hood and King Arthur and his theory on why the latest films based on these stories have failed. He also has tons of great video essays about film in general. Well worth checking out.