Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (1988) – MST3K Review

In an amazing fantasy world the hero Deathstalker (John Allen Nelson) is enjoying a pleasant day at the local fair. But he is also keeping an eye on his wizard friend Nicias (Aaron Hernan) who is telling fortunes for the peasents. Before you can say Conan, a bunch of evil men in black armor ride up and attempt kidnap Nicias. Deathstalker fights them off, and Nicias uses a spell to disappear, but not before giving a lovely girl a magic crystal.

Naturally this girl turns out to be a princess, and she is on the quest for the other half of the crystal. If the two are combined they will lead to a city of fabled treasure. Of course there is an evil warlord named Troxartas (Thom Christopher) who is also after the same crystal. The princess is killed and Troxartas assumes that Deathstalker has the other half of the crystal. So he uses his nightmare powers to summon undead warriors to track down our hero. Along the way Deathstalker faces other perils including the feisty twin to the dead princess, a couple of potato loving hermits and a noble woman who loves torturing captive men. Will Deathstalker have a chance in hell (see what I did there) in surviving his most dangerous adventure yet?

Movie Review:
Deathstalker unleashes the smarm.
As much as I pick on Roger Corman’s directing, he really was a wizard when it came to producing films. He could figure out what audiences wanted, and how to give it to them cheap and fast. In the early 80s, audiences wanted sword and sorcery fantasy flicks. So Corman cobbled together a crew, sent them to Mexico and started cranking out the Deathstalker flicks. Corman also managed a few other trashy classics like Barbarian Queen and the more family friendly fantasy flick Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. But the Deathstalker concept spawned an actual series of four films.

The first film was pretty much a Conan the Barbarian imitator, but with a bit more skin on display. The second film injected some humor and upped the skin quotient a bit. But here we have the third film which has neither the violence or the skin of the first two. The budget seems extremely low, the script cobbled together at the last minute and the cast, well, we’ll get to them in a minute. The final result is like a D&D fever dream. It is wonderful in it’s wretchedness.

"Squeak I say! Squeak!"
What is funny is that Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (which I’ll just call Deathstalker III from this point on) is that compared to some of the other bargain basement 80s fantasy out there – well it’s really bad. That’s right folks, we may have found something that makes even the Ator movies like Cave Dwellers look like they had the budget of Lord of the Rings. But I don't let that get in the way of a fun movie. You can still have a fun flick with a low budget. And as we well know even films with huge coffers for sets, costumes and special effects can end up really horrible.

It takes a skilled director to really make a no budget fantasy film work. Unfortunately, we don’t get that kind of skill here. Nearly all the production elements, from costumes to sets are really unimpressive. Toxartas’ castle doesn’t look too bad from some angles. The interiors are the best part, some of them actually looking like they may not be on a soundstage. Really, the location shooting helps the film a bit.

Wait till Radagast hears about this.
While we have a couple wizards in the film, don’t look for any flashy special effects. Instead look for some laugh inducing arm flailing and smoke puffs. The movie’s most impressive sequence, when Troxartas raises his dead warriors ends up being a cheat. All those ghostly (and silly looking) specters that show up are taken from the film Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. Yes, Deathstalker III borrows from only the best.

Am I being too harsh? Not really because the borrowing doesn’t stop there. When you start the film, you hear a full orchestral score kick in. It’s a heroic theme with a big bold sound. It is also borrowed from another film from the Corman factory: Battle Beyond the Stars. Yep, James Horner’s score kicks things off for us. Don’t get too excited, because that is the only hint of anything that impressive you’ll hear from that point on.

The rest of the score is simplistic meandering on an old Casio keyboard. It repeats endlessly and seems to only be about a minute long. There are maybe three or four tracks to pick form and they all are done in the same style. Think along the lines of Puma Man but without the catchy appeal. Just when you think you can’t take it any more, something new but still borrowed shows up. This time from Brain Eno and his Prophesy piece from Dune. It is surreal to hear that music for a silly scene of Detathstalker stealing horses.

The chilling sound of cardboard against cardboard.
Bad film lovers should seek out Deathstalker III  for one reason: the acting his horrible. Deathstalker is one of the smarmiest, slimiest and most annoying heroes I’ve seen in one of these 80s sword and sorcery flicks. John Allen Nelson sneers, smirks and swaggers his way through the movie, convinced every woman wants him and every man fears him. But he is about as intimidating as a plush puppy. Granted the character is supposed to be more of a rogue than a fighter, but Allen just doesn't seem like the guy who would have the reputation for being such a bad ass. I like that Allen is trying, but the final result is a main character so unlikable that you actually miss the cardboard acting of Miles O’Keefe from Cave Dwellers.

Then you have Carla Herd in an amazing double role as the twin sisters Carissa and Elizena. One sister is the confident, brave and noble one. The other is the bratty, spoiled and selfish one. Herd isn’t bad doing the bratty sister. But she isn’t so hot as the noble sister. Her early scenes with Deathstalker contain some pretty confusing reaction shots and odd line delivery. It is possible the editing is to blame (more on that later). Sadly she is just not much of a leading lady. 

Like my gem? It is a doorknob from my grandmother's
But the real reason to seek this episode out is the amazingly over the top, ham-tastic performance by Thom Christopher as Troxartas. Sci-fi fans of a certain age will immediately recognize Christopher from his role in Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century as the mighty Hawk. For the role of Toxartas, Christopher drops the cool intensity, and replaces it with eye popping, ranting, and line deliveries that could easily be described as Shatner-esque. In fact you almost feel like you are watching Thom Christopher imitating William Shatner hopped up on cocaine and pretending he was a wizard. It is one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in any Mystery Science Theater 3000  episode. You get the feeling that Christopher figured he was doing this god awful movie (and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom a couple years before that) and he might as well just GO OVER THE FLIPPING TOP!!!!

The supporting cast falls right in line. Some of them are over the top and ridiculous. Aaron Hernan as Nicias is a perfect example of this. He takes the blowhard wizard stereotype to a whole new level. Then you have the people that really couldn’t be bothered to be in the movie, because you know, whatever.

Yep, the man on the left is Vadinho from Puma Man.
The real problem is the basic construction of Deathstalker III. The script seems like it was made up as they went along. The basic idea of finding two halve of a jewel to find a lost city is a fun fantasy trope. Hell, the same basic plot fuels the entertaining Golden Voyage of Sinbad. But instead of creating a simple plot that moves forward from peril to peril, the movie just kind wanders around aimlessly. Things happen because um… they just do. Why kill off one princess if you are only going to have her twin show up later? It has NOTHING to do with the rest of the story. It just lets the actress wear different cloths and act more bratty. Why make a big deal about Nicias, only to have him vanish about 10 minutes in and then reappear about 10 minutes before the movie ends.

But the worst offenders are eponymous Warriors from Hell. We get not just one scene dealing with their resurrection – but two scenes. Yes both are hilarious because we get to see Christopher chew all the lead paint on the scenery. But the build up leads you to believe that these bad boys are going to be a major problem for Deathstalker. When you see them in their glory, well they look like a bunch of dusty guys in fake armor with white stuff in their hair and beards (I’m not sure what that stuff is supposed to be). So they are visually disappointing. But you think, well maybe they’ll be part of a huge battle scene with Deathstalker or something. Nope. They don’t do a damn thing, but end up as targets for stupid dead people jokes.

"Is it wrong for me to want to see him get tortured?"
This turd of a script (I’m sorry, there is no point in softening the blow here) is directed with almost no life or interest. Fight scenes have little energy to them. This works in favor of the unintentional comedy because some of the stage fighting is the really bottom of the barrel stuff. The Deathstalker versus Troxartas fights are hilariously horrible. Christopher just isn’t good at this kind of thing and Nelson has to keep prompting him to do stuff, even going so far as grabbing the evil warlord's sword and pulling it closer to he can execute the choreographed move. I’m guessing that director Alfanso Corona took a look at his footage and realized that it would be nearly impossible to salvage this one. So he started editing and editing and editing. Deathstalker III starts to rival the amazingly horrible editing of Devilfish, jumping wildly from scene to scene. Cutting on the action but not in an exciting way, but in a way that only creates massive confusion. Even Coleman Francis at his most random (see Beast of Yucca Flats) seemed to be trying to create a mood. Deathstalker III is just flailing around.

So here is the hearty recommendation from a guy who loves these bad 80s fantasy flicks, it really doesn’t get much worse than Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. It ends up beating Cave Dwellers and Outlaw in sheer stupidity on nearly all fronts of filmmaking. And for all that, it is a blast to watch. And when you add Mike and Bots firing on all cylinders for Season Seven – well you’ve got a one hell of an episode.

Episode Review:
Troxartas has sprit, yes he does!
This movie gets the riffing it so richly deserves. The fodder ends up being so prevalent that the boys seem to be drowning in it. There are moments when the jokes and wisecracks come flying so fast it is nearly impossible to keep up with all of them. Deathstalker III found the Mike, Kevin and Trace at the peak of teamwork, and I’m so happy they got to tackle this film (and my other favorite from this season The Incredible Melting Man) at this time. The movie seems to be giftwrapping items for them, from the ridiculous faire at the beginning at the film, to the stupid costumes and Christopher’s amazing performance. Everything is fair game.

Highlights include lots and lots of bat jokes as the evil henchman rides around with a couple of silly batwings sticking out of helmet. Mike and bots have them squeeking out their lines on several occasions as well as having the terrorized villagers shriek “Rabies!” or “They get in your hair!”

Deathstalker is not immune to riffing. After about five minutes of his smarmy performance Tom asks, “Is it too early to hate this guy?” Later after Nelson lets a little twang escape from his smirking face Crow asks Mike, “Were there crackers in the middle ages?” Mike replies with “Apparently.” Near the end after Deathstalker escapes tortured but gets captured… again, Crow declares, “I’m glad he gets hit a lot.”

Deathstalker encounters the potato people.
Toxartas provides the bulk of the laughs. Most of the cast pronounces his name like Trucks Artist. This ends up turning into a running joke, where all the characters start asking if he also does van art. After one of his rants when he hits full blown William Shatner stylings, Tom says in a very funny imitation of Christopher’s intonation “I wrote the… beats in… my script and I… ‘m sticking to… them!” Later as he looms over our hero while dressed in billowing lavender robes and very femine turban Crow advices “It’s hard to look menacing when you’re dressed like Maude.”

Deathstalker III contains two of the oddest characters in any fantasy movie I’ve seen: a mother and daughter living like hermits in the mountains. They raise horses… I think, and they eat nothing but potatoes. Deathstalker runs into these two and the daughter falls head over heels in love with him (Krom knows why). After the mother declares in an emphatic voice “Potatoes are what we EAT!” A whole set of hilarious potatoe bases jokes are unleashed. They pop up when you least expect it. The boys also modify the line, saying it with the same determination, such as “Horses are what we RIDE!” or “Swords are what we SWING!”

The fantasy nature of film actually provides a bunch of Lord of the Rings based humor. It was surprising to hear these when this episode aired back in 1995, years before Peter Jackson's films were released. One of my favorites is when the old wizard Nicias is being tortured by Troxartas. Nicias bemoans, “This is not the life for an old man like me.” To which Tom adds, “I should be playing canasta with Saruman.”

The complete ineptitude on display in Deathstalker III makes for some hilarious general riffs. Like when Mike says, “The director’s vision: vagueness mixed with confusion.” Or his observation near the end of the film when he says “This is one of the most ambitiously bad movies we’ve ever done”. I have to agree with him.

Huzzah! Mike is at the Ren Faire!
The episode begins with Crow showing Mike and Tom his new active lifestyle, thanks to his new hair. It’s a fun parody of the old Hairclub for Men commercials that were constantly appearing on Comedy Central back in the day. Before the movie begins we learn that Dr. Forrester’s mother Pearl is very sick. She proceeds to whine and moan and whine. Dr. Forrester is obviously losing hiis mind… even more than usual. To make things worse, when the mad scientist tries to tell Mike and bots about the movie, they pretend they are at a drive thru and trying to take his order. “Do you want to supersize that?” At the first break Tom, Crow and Gypsy create their own Renaissance Festival and charge Mike for all kinds of stupid and insulting “attractions”. At the next break, Mike had so much fun being insulted and paying for it that he comes back for more Renaissance Festival fun. The bots don’t have much else to work with, but this manage to take the rest of his money. These skits it very obvious that whole cast and crew hated Renaissance Festivals with a fiery passion. At the next break the sickly Pearl begs for Art (her nickname for Crow) to read to her. Turns out the book is a very naughty romance novel filled with descriptors like milky white and throbbing. When the film ends, Tom is inspired to forge his own ring of power. It goes wrong. Dr. Forrester is inspired by the classic Hitchcock film Suspicion and brings poisoned milk to Pearl. It glows with an unnatural light.

This is easily one of my favorite episodes from the Comedy Central era. Deathstalker III is a wonderfully bad movie on it’s own, but Mike and the bots make it even funnier. The riffing is some of the best in the series. The host segments are pretty funny, but I’ll admit that Pearl gets really annoying with all her whining (which is the whole point). That may drag down the score a bit.

In the end I have to give it 5 Warriors from Hell out of 5.

Least impressive warriors from hell... ever.
Take a guess what Troxartas is doing to Nicias
in this picture.
This episode is available the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXV.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Thunderball (1965)

It is safe to say that by the time the mid-sixties rolled around James Bond was a household name, and the franchise was truly a juggernaut. Goldfinger was a huge success, and audiences just wanted more and more. The producers knew they needed to go bigger and more spectacular. This movie would be the Bond movie to end all Bond movies. But in the race to create the biggest and the best, would they end up with a misfire no one saw coming?

That evil organization of terrorists known as SPECTRE is at it again. This time they hijacked a plane with two nuclear warheads. They threaten to blow up two major cities unless their ransom is paid. MI6 pulls in all of its top agents to stop this heinous plot, and that means brining in James Bond (Sean Connery). Bond decides to start his search in Nassau, not just to work on his tan, but also to investigate the lovely Domino (Cloudine Auger). Her brother was on the plane that went down, and Bond thinks she may have some additional information.

Of course Bond runs into more than he bargained for. Turns out that the mysterious Largo (Adolfo Celi) may be in on the whole scheme, but he’s got Domino under his thumb. Bond will also have to match wits with the seductive and deadly Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). It becomes clear that the missiles are somewhere near the Caribbean island, and 007 is going to have to fight to retrieve them, but will he a match for the full weight of SPECTRE’s forces, or will operation Thunderball fail in an atomic explosion?

Good Points:
  • Manages to go larger in scope but still keep the thrills
  • One of my favorite villainous women in the entire franchise – Fiona is wicked
  • John Barry gives us his most diverse and brassy Bond score

Bad Points:
  • Takes a while to really get going, lots of set up
  • Pretty much stays in one locale the whole movie
  • The underwater battle scenes may drive some viewers nuts

When it comes to all out escapism for a 1960s James Bond film, you can’t beat Thunderball. It’s got some great action scenes, some of the sexiest babes of the franchise and a thrilling plot that keeps the stakes high and Bond’s mission vitally important. It does have a slower pace than the previous film, but all in all it is a winner in my book.

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

In Depth Review
Even while relaxing at the beach with a babe, Bond
can kill!
When it comes to Thunderball, the feeling really is, bigger is better. Eventually this film was dwarfed in scale by You Only Live Twice. But Thunderball manages a tough balance.  It is huge and yet stays on course with thrills and excitement. It includes some of the most classic scenes from the James Bond franchise and also pioneers some firsts in underwater cinematography.

Largo's only eye is the evil eye.
Thunderball is based on a concept that Kevin McClory and Ian Fleming came up with when James Bond was still only a character in novels. Because the two came up with the idea together, it ended up giving McClory rights to the story, and is the main reason we ended up seeing a remake of the film in 1983 called Never Say Never Again. The script for the film is very close to the novel that Fleming ended up writing. For me it makes it feel a bit closer to the first two James Bond films, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. The other reason for that is director Terence Young is at the helm again. Young asked for a break after the troubled production on From Russia with Love, but the studio was able entice him back for one more Bond adventure.

Fiona: being a bad girl never looked so good.
Young has a deliberate style, focusing on building tension over explosive action. This was put to wonderful use in From Russia with Love, but it does end up hurting Thunderball in the pacing department. One of the main issues with the film is the extended set up for the villains’ plot. It eats up nearly a half hour of the film. While it is important to get everything in place for the action to come, I think that reliance on Fleming’s novel actually hurts this portion of the film. I tighter way to script this plot heavy portion could have been found, and made the film move with greater momentum toward the climax.

This time the villain has gadgets too!
But one of the side effects of taking your time is that you can show off the visuals. Of the 60s Bond films, this movie really has some of the most amazing visuals (topped only by the scope of You Only Live Twice). Most of the action takes place in the Bahamas, and the result is a film steeped in tropical imagery and underwater action. Thunderball used state of the art underwater cameras to capture some amazing action scenes as well as sequences around coral reefs. The amount of underwater footage ended up surpassing the impressive work done by Disney for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. All this state of the art equipment was really put through its paces, and it gives Thunderball its own look and feel.

Every evil board room in every movie is based
on this one.
Production designer Ken Adam returned. His visual style really defines the 60s Bond films and while locations shooting really ends up taking the cake here, Adam does create some interesting and impressive sets. The most memorable is the SPECTRE boardroom where the villains plan their dastardly plot. This scene has inspired countless other films (and parodies). Adams spartan but futuristic set is a big reason for it. He also designed the set for MI6 briefing where all the 00 agents learn about the mission. It’s an impressive room, and one that fits the look of British opulence.

Thunderball marks a few firsts for the James Bond saga. This is the first 007 film to be filmed in Panavision for a 2.35 aspect ration.  This was done to make the film look bigger of course, but was also a perfect showcase for the underwater footage that was being heavily featured in the film. This required a few updates, such as the gun barrel sequence, which had to be re-filmed. In an odd bit of trivia: the man in the gun barrel sequences for Dr. No through Goldfinger was not Sean Connery. So Thunderball marks the first time Sean Connery appeared in the gun barrel sequence.

Floating naked beauties. It all started here.
This is also the first time Maurice Binder worked on the opening titles for a James Bond Film. Binder’s work became synonymous with James Bond. He worked on all the opening credits for the James Bond films until Goldeneye. For Thunderball includes all his trademarks, naked silhouettes, vibrant colors, and creative editing around the music. While I like some of Binder’s work for later films a bit more, it is neat to see how he started out his style for these.

The only negative aspect to the visuals are moments of poor rear projection, but that is an issue that plagues all the early Bond films. The action scenes are all pretty impressive. One of the best is the entire pre-credit sequence, featuring Bond punching a widow in the face and escaping from a French chateau via jetpack. Then you also have the full on underwater battle at the end of the film, but I’ll talk a bit more about that later.

Sound effects in these early Bond films are pretty good for their time. Thunderball provides some added challenges with all the underwater action. Some creative sound effects were created for the film, but much of those scenes are actually supported more by the score.

Underwater mayhem!
John Barry returns for his third James Bond score and this is one of my favorite efforts of his from the 60s. Thunderball sports the most number of themes and motifs of any of the Barry scores. You get the traditional James Bond theme, the 007 theme introduced in From Russia with Love, the title theme, an underwater motif and a searching motif. Originally this film had another theme song, called Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, supposedly named after the Japanese nickname for James Bond. The song is never performed in the final version of the film, but Barry uses the theme quite liberally through out the score, and it is highlighted when Bond visits the Kiss Kiss Klub. With all these themes to work with Barry gets to mix, match and manipulate them all. The score is a blast to listen to, with heavy use of brass, making this the boldest of his scores. He uses his 007 theme for most of the final underwater battle turning into an almost melodic piece to match the slowed motion of the fighters. The theme song itself is performed with verve by Tom Jones, and is a song that is either about Bond or the villain Largo – argument still rages among James Bond fans.

"What sharp little eyes you've got." "Wait till
you get to my teeth."
For my money this is one of Connery’s best performances as Bond. He really plays the part of the professional in this one, always staying one step ahead of Largo and his plot. His interaction with Domino is genuinely warm, something that was missing from Goldfinger, which seemed a bit more playful. To be honest, Connery ends up looking a bit bored in the next two Bond films he is in. So for me, this is his last performance where he seems genuinely engaged in the character. Auger makes for a fine love interest. She’s very lovely looking, but she also brings a touch of sadness to the character. It’s a shame she ends up pushed to the side a bit as the film progresses, but she does a solid job over all.

Yeah Largo, Fiona would shoot you if she had too.
When it comes to the villains, I have mixed feelings. Largo is intimidating and brutish, but I don’t get the feeling of cunning from him. The plot requires Celi to give Largo a genial but cruel edge. Well the cruel comes across very well, but he doesn’t seem as suave as the film wants him to be. I still think Largo is a fairly strong Bond villain, but not one of the best from the decade. But his henchwoman Fiona – wow! Now she pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Paluzzi is sultry and wicked. I love the way she manipulates the men around her, and even manages to make Bond look foolish. In some ways, I really wish the film had turned her into the mastermind of the plot, with Largo as her minion (like the inspired twist in The World is NotEnough). I’m always sad to see Fiona get killed two thirds of the way through the film. Thunderball shines a little less once she’s gone.

Poor Q never gets to enjoy a holiday,
The supporting cast does a fine job as they always do. Desmond Llewlyn gets a bit of fun as Q while he attempts to equip Bond in the field, muttering the whole time. We also get a new Felix Leiter in this film (this role is rarely ever filled by the same actor twice). This time we get Rik Van Nutter, and he’s not bad, but the part seems a bit shoehorned in. Both Bernard Lee and Louis Maxwell return as M and Moneypenny. They get to fret and worry about the mission back in London, and provide the film with most of the “ticking clock” moments.

Thunderball is not high on everyone’s list and one of the main complaints I see leveled at the film is the final battle sequence. It does last quite a while and it occurs entirely under water. From a technical point of view this battle is really amazing. The submersible equipment they use in this scene is pretty nifty looking.  Pretty much any way you can imagine men in scuba gear battling is covered. You get harpoons, knives, explosives and masks being ripped off. They even throw a shark into the mix.

Jet packs for everyone! Oh wait, that's Moonraker.
For a lot of folks the intensity of the film really loses a lot momentum with all the underwater action. Since all the motion on the screen is literally slowed down, it does end up making the film feel longer in places. But I feel that the crew was also showing off the amazing cameras. The Bahamas presented them with some wonderfully clear water, and the footage is really impressive. In the end, I think Young could have trimmed some of it to keep the urgency in the film.

"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way."
But I can’t blame Young for being excited with the footage, and so I usually don’t let it bother me. Besides, he does end up bringing James Bond a bit back to earth after the comic book fun of Goldfinger. While the film deals with holding the world hostage for a nuclear threat (a staple of the Bond films pioneered here), the action centers mostly on Bond as he uses his wits and guile to discover and undo Largo’s plot. The only side effect is that Bond in Thunderball has retained the immunity to damage that he obtained in Goldfinger. But still, this movie feels more like a thriller than a series of set pieces. I think it has as much to do with Flemings story being the core as it does with Young’s direction.

So what it all comes down to it, Thunderball is easily one of my favorite Connery Bond flicks. I like the larger than life scope, but the fact that it stays true to the thriller roots. The caveat of the underwater action seems to the make or break item for this movie. And I understand why it doesn’t work for everyone. But for me it’s a fun summer Bond film, one of the best of the era.

One more shot of Fiona. :)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

O' Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)

These days films based around ancient Greek mythology are few and far between. When we do get something it is more along the reboot of Clashof the Titans.  But every once in a while you get a movie that attempts to bring one of the classics to life. This time Joel and Ethan Coen took one of the most epic adventures ever written and turned it into a 1930s style screwball comedy road trip film. How the heck was this going to turn out?

Ulysses Everett (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Tuturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) just escaped from a chain gang and are one the run! Everett know where a treasure is buried, and he is leading his comrades to its location. Along the way they are pursued by a determined sheriff (who may be Satan), encounter lovely sirens, do battle with a giant one eye bible salesman, and get mistaken for a trio of black singers.

Through the long journey, Everett is hiding a secret from his friends. His true goal it to get back home to his loving wife Penny, and protect her from an aggressive suitor. But there are dangers around every corner including a run in with George “Babyface” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), a lynch mob and the lotus eaters… I mean a Baptist congregation. Can our man of constant sorrow make it back home and find the treasure?

Good Points:
  • A wonderful merging of “The Odyssey” and 1930s filmmaking
  • Fun performances by the entire cast
  • Lot of humor and quotable dialogue throughout

Bad Points:
  • If you are not a fan of old time country music this movie will hurt
  • Major liberties taken with the source material
  • The screwball style may not appeal to everyone

This movie surprised the hell out of me. I managed to catch it about halfway through and it just pulled me in (in spite of not liking country music much at all). I made a point to rent the film and see it from the beginning and it has been a favorite ever since. The style of the film combined with “The Odyssey” is like chocolate and peanut butter. It is endlessly quotable, has so many fun performances and just leaves you with a smile on your face. Makes for a fun double feature with The Hudsucker Proxy.

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

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Anime Juke Box - Blue - Cowboy Bebop

So I've posted music from Outlaw Star and Trigun, but nothing from Cowboy Bebop yet. Well, it is about time to change that. Yoko Kanno wrote all the music for the series, and most of it was performed by her band The Seatbelts. This jazz combo gave the series a distinctive sound, and one that matches the series perfectly. But Kanno does what she always does best, and that is show off her versatility. Cowboy Bebop boasts some atonal electronic tracks, traditional orchestral and operatic style vocals, and of course pop and rock songs. Blue is played during the final scene of the series, and really fits the scene perfectly. Mai Yamane frequently collaborated with Kanno in the 1990s and her vocal style reminds me of Melissa Etheridge. Here she sings the whole song in English, and does a pretty good job.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Top Ten - James Bond Pre-credit Sequences

When it comes to James Bond, most of the films follow a pretty rigid formula. Sure the creators shake things up once in a while. But when you’ve got a franchise that started in the early 1960s, a certain set of expectations are accepted. One of these is that every James Bond film is going to have a pre-credit sequence.

Of course this isn’t strictly true. Dr. No didn’t have a pre-credit sequence. The elements found in the pre-credit sequence seem to change over time. Sometimes you get a mini James Bond adventure that has nothing to do with the plot. Sometimes  the sequences is nothing but set up for the plot and the villain. For me the best combine all the elements together, giving us a nice set up to the plot, while also giving us a taste of Bond in action.

This means that it is time for another top ten list. This one features my favorite James Bond pre-credit sequences. I’ve got each actor represented, so there should be enough to please everyone. At the time of this writing there are 23 Bond flicks, so this will represent about half the series. So lets dive in…

Runner Up - A View to a Kill (1985)
This one almost made the list, and hell, I may even swap it at some point. This Roger Moore pre-credit scene starts in Soviet Russia, with 007 searching for a dead agent on a snowy glacier. Unfortunately the Russians know he is there and have a search party looking for him - including skiers, snow mobiles and a helicopter. Bond finds the dead agent and the stolen microchip he was smuggling. But the Russian soldiers find him and a pretty awesome ski chase erupts. Bond ends up on one ski, but he steals a snowmobile and is doing pretty well, until the helicopter blows it up. 

Bond survives the destruction of the vehicle, but grabs one of it's struts and proceeds to snowboard down the glacier. Now in 1985, snowboarding was in its infancy. So this was a huge deal, and it looked so damn cool (even though we all knew that Roger was way too old to be doing the actual stunts). Bond escapes his pursuers, blows up the helicopter with a flare, and then heads off to a submarine disguised as an iceberg for some quality make out time with a hot fellow agent. Now the whole thing is edited with skill and moves really well. If you can ignore the random insertion of California Girls by the Beach Boys in the soundtrack, then it is very entertaining. But I suspect my enjoyment of this has more than a bit of nostalgia, since A View to a Kill was the first Bond film I saw in theaters. 

This is one of those pre-credit sequences that is plot heavy. It introduces us to this film’s Bond girl, Tracy. But it does it in a way that immediately grabs our attention. Tracy is trying to kill herself by walking into the ocean, and Bond saves her. Almost immediately thugs attack Bond and he is forced to some brutal hand-to-hand combat.

Right off, this shows us that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service a James Bond adventure unlike anything we’d seen up to this point. Suicide? Does that even happen in Bond’s world? It shows us the new James Bond, and how he moves in action. Lazenby was always good in the action scenes. You also get to see way director Peter Hunt was going to present the action scenes with some seriously kinetic editing. Finally you’ve got that famous line, “This never happened to the other fellow.” Love it or hate it, it’s memorable. This was the first time the producers attempted to introduce a new actor as Bond, and I think they did a fine job. It gave us a bit of everything and prepared us for the very interesting and unique movie ahead.

9. Die Another Day (2002)
A fair argument could be made that the pre-credit sequence for Die Another Day is essentially a rehash of the pre-credit sequence for Tomorrow Never Dies. Both feature Bond taking on an army of attackers. Both feature Bond using his wits and skills to come out on top. And both end up with Bond in an unusual vehicle and chase. But what I like about the version in Die Another Day is that it plays as a real prelude to the story. Tomorrow Never Dies has a side character making an appearance, but that’s about it.

Besides, Die Another Day features hovercrafts, and you almost never see those in movies. I love the concept of the escape thought he demilitarized zone. But the real kicker is that Bond does not get away. In fact he is captured and the opening credits start with him in enemy hands. This is an excellent start to the film, action packed and then suspenseful. It is a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t come close to measuring up.

8. Octopussy (1983)
Looking over Roger Moore’s pre-credit sequences, I was sorry to see that so many of them were lackluster. Even this one starts out pretty typical. 007 shows up in disguise in a Central American country. His objective is to blow up a spy plane. He sneaks into a military base dressed as an officer, and nearly places the bomb successfully. But the officer he is impersonating shows up and blows his cover. Luckily Bond is not alone, and his sultry fellow agent distracts his guards. Bond makes his escape, and it all seems fairly conventional. 

But then the Bond blasts off in that miniature jet, and man is it cool! The little plane hurtles across the screen rushing back toward the military base. The army fires a missile at Bond, but he evades it, and then flies into the hanger with the spy plane. They try to shut the doors but Bond's plane is too quick, and the missile takes out the whole hanger. Bond then lands his plane at a local gas station and asks the attended to "Fill 'er up." It is obvious that nearly all the footage you see is actually the real plane speeding around the screen. Even when special effects are used, they are actually really well done. This little plane makes the sequence a real winner.

7. Goldeneye (1995)
Here we have another pre-credit sequence that has to introduce a new actor as James Bond. Much like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service this one gives us a lot of plot information for the rest of the movie, but also manages to give us a solid action sequence on top of it. 007 and 006 sneak into a chemical weapons outpost in Soviet Russia. Their mission is to blow it up. Simple enough, but of course everything does wrong, and Bond watches 006 die and barely escapes the exploding facility.

The short scene builds the camaraderie and competition between 006 and 007. It gives us some intense action scenes, and the wonderful moment when Bond escapes from the Soviet soldiers using a cart with a squeaky wheel. There is also the physics-defying jump off a cliff – and the audience I saw the film groaned and cheered at the same time. Goldeneye’s pre-credit sequence has a little bit of everything and is still a lot of fun to watch.

6. Skyfall (2012)
Of the three Craig film’s this is easily the most interesting and in a way the most traditional of the pre-credit sequences. In it, Bond is searching for a fellow agent, who he finds murdered. Bond pursues the murderer, and works with another agent, Eve to catch him. This leads to an extended chase scene and a fistfight on top of a moving train, while Eve tries to line up a sniper shot to take out the enemy agent. In the final moments, she declares she can’t get a clean shot and M tells her to shoot anyway. Bond is hit and falls off the train and into a gorge.

This is an intense opening scene, and it does an amazing job of showing us the visual skills that director Sam Mendes and his cameraman Roger Deakins were going to give Skyfall. There some wonderfully noire shots in the first half. During the chase scene, the action is easy to follow and intense. It also sets up the final conflict with M, as we wee first hand how she must treat her agents – as tools. Much like the Die Another Day pre-credit sequence, it ends with Bond in jeopardy. This is a great pre-credit sequence, just lacking the really spectacular moment to push it up the list.

5. Thunderball (1965)
If you want spectacular than it is hard to top Thunderball, which was really one of the biggest Bond films of the 60s. In this pre-credit sequence we see Bond at a funeral for an enemy agent. After spotting something unusual at the funeral, Bond sneaks into the dead man’s house and proceeds to punch the widow in the face! Turns out the enemy agent was in drag as his own wife, and faking his death. Bond enters a brutal hand-to-hand fight with agent and eventually kills him. But guards are hot on his heels and he needs to make his escape.

At this point you’re snickering at the brutality of the fight with the man in drag. It’s really bizarre. But then James Bond straps on a jet pack! Yes… a jet pack, and flies to his waiting Aston Martin from Goldfinger. He blasts the baddies with a spray of water that knocks them over and escapes. The fact that a working jet pack appears in the film puts this sequence on the list. But the brutality and oddity of the fistfight makes the whole thing surreal and cool.

In a lot of ways this Roger Moore pre-credit sequence mirrors the one for Thunderball. Bond finds himself being pursued by Russian agents. It quickly turns into a top-notch ski chase. Now, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has the best ski chase in the Bond series, but this one is pretty exciting. It probably would have made this list with just that.

But then it just goes spectacular. Bond makes his escape by skiing off a cliff. Not just any cliff, but what appears to be the largest cliff IN THE WORLD! I swear he falls and falls and keeps falling. Just when you think this whole thing can’t get any more crazy, his parachute opens into the Union Jack. It’s amazing. It’s funny. And it is just thing to get this spectacular film rolling. The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore’s best pre-credit sequence, and probably his most entertaining film.

This is one of the longest pre-credit sequences of the series. It really is like a James Bond short story. It starts with Bond in Spain negotiating with a Swiss banker. Suddenly a sniper starts taking everyone out, and Bond narrowly escapes with the money he needs to obtain. Back at MI6 headquarters Bond delivers the money to M’s old friend. But the money is booby trapped and explodes. Then someone is sniping at Bond again. This time he sees the assassin is the lovely cigar girl from Spain.

Bond goes after her using Q’s tricked out fishing boat (a stealth boat with a ton of weapons) to chase her down the Thames. This is one of the best the chase scenes in the series. It is endlessly creative, has some exciting moments, laugh out loud scenes and an amazing musical score by David Arnold. The scene ends with Bond chasing the killer into a hot air balloon taking off over the Millennium Dome. This lasts nearly 15 minutes, but it flies by. I wish the rest of the film was this good.

Something about introducing a new actor as James Bond just brings out the best in the directors when they have to cook up these pre-credit sequences. In this case, the crew is introducing Timothy Dalton in the role, and showing us that this isn’t going to be like the previous Roger Moore films. This Bond is much more dangerous. Things start off with a training exercise on Gibraltar. Bond and two other agents sky dive onto the island. The guards are waiting for them, and are armed with paint balls to take them out. Little do they know that a Russian agent is also there, and he’s been told to kill the British agents.

What follows is one of the best actions scenes of the 1980s. Bond tracks down the killer and fights him on a moving jeep as it hurtles down the winding cliff roads on Gibraltar. Timothy Dalton is obviously doing as much of his own stunt work as possible, and on location. If that wasn’t impressive enough the whole thing ends with the jeep plummeting off a cliff and Bond landing in the yacht of lovely woman and offering him a martini. What a great way to kick off this movie.

1. Goldfinger (1964)
Yeah, it’s a bit of a cliché to pick Goldfinger as the best of anything James Bond. But in this case I think it is fully warranted. While From Russia with Love gave us the very first James Bond pre-credit sequence, Goldfinger perfected the concept. It starts with James Bond using scuba gear to sneak into a compound somewhere in Latin America. As part of his disguise, a false seagull is perched on his head. Bond takes out a guard or two, plants his explosives on the cache of drugs and then escapes. He pulls off his wetsuit to reveal a tuxedo underneath. He then heads to a party where he hits on a sexy dancer while the building outside explodes. Bond takes it all in stride. He then follows the dancer into her dressing room for some personal attention, but is attacked by a thug. He outfights the man and kills him by tossing the thug into a tub and then throwing a plugged in fan into the tub afterward. It ends with the quip, “Shocking. Positively shocking.”

This scene has it all, thrills, action, sex appeal, a dash of humor and the post kill quip. It is everything you expect and want from a James Bond movie wrapped up in a neat package. Each time I see it, I marvel at its simple but effective storytelling and how it influenced so many elements that came after it. As fun and exciting as many of the other pre-credit sequences on this list are, the Goldfinger one really ends up being the perfect example of this 007 trope.