Category: Adventures


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If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

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After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

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But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

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Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

Final Score: B+

 

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When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.

Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.

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Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.

With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.

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Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.

What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).

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Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.

The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.

Final Score: A-

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I am a sucker for imaginative storytelling and engrossing world building. From a classical storytelling perspective, the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who or the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t bastions of great characters or “important” insights into the human condition, but as someone who loves fantastical new worlds, they scratch that need. Ever since I was little and I was introduced to The Hobbit, I’ve had a constant desire to see new things and explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. 1984’s The Last Starfighter has a wonderful premise and a compelling mythology, but the film suffers in its execution with a story that ultimately feels woefully deficient and underdeveloped.

Perhaps it’s the screenwriter in me (long time readers should know that I’ve written two unpublished screenplays and I’m hard at work on a third one right now), but I found myself nitpicking every step of the way little areas where I felt The Last Starfighter missed a storytelling opportunity or had major characters seem embarrassingly thinly drawn. In fact, if I had to sum up my reaction to this film in one quick sentence, it’s that The Last Starfighter rests on the laurels of an ahead of it’s time basic plot but then fails to properly capitalize with compelling villains, good acting, or proper pacing. Though these thoughts didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I kept getting pulled out of the experience after one cheesy interlude after another.

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Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average teenage boy living his last summer before the beginning of college. Alex lives in a trailer park with his mother and little brother as well as his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and he dreams of nothing more than going to a nice college and getting out of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park once and for all. And the only thing that Alex seems to enjoy in life any more besides the company of his girlfriend is the Starfighter arcade box up at the general store near the trailer park. One night Alex finally beats the Starfighter game and finds his life changed forever.

It turns out that the Starfighter video game was a secret test left on Earth by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston) to find new recruits for the Starfighter defense program defending the galactic frontier. Centauri shows up on Earth and whisks Alex away to an alien-filled space station to convince Alex to help defend the galaxy, but when it becomes clear that Alex’s life is in danger, Alex wants to go home. But, it isn’t long before he’s back on Earth and realizes that everyone he loves and holds dear will be in danger if he doesn’t fight. And Alex is forced to take up the call and become the titular last starfighter.

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None of the performances in the film are anything to write home about and pretty much all of the aliens are invariably over the top. Lance Guest is appropriately sensitive and lost as the hero and Catherine Mary Stewart also gels as his girlfriend, but it’s also clear that both were cast more for their good looks than for any acting talent. Robert Preston hams it up in every single second he’s on screen as the Merlin-esque Centauri to the point of distraction, and I’m not entirely sure what was up with the weird little laugh Alex’s alien navigator Grig had to do every time he thought something was funny.

Surprisingly, the special effects of the film both look like a product of the mid 1980s, but they also don’t distract from the overall experience of the film by coming off as too cheesy (except for maybe the absurd encephalitis that the primary alien species seems to suffer from). In fact, the 1980s video game look of some of the space ships and the space battles actually adds some perhaps unintentional charm to the film as it captures the arcade aesthetic that propelled Alex into space in the first place.

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If you are a fan of cheesy science fiction (particularly of the 1980s variety), by all means check The Last Starfighter out if you’ve never gotten around to it. It will be a pleasant diversion, and it will harken back to a day of more innocent film-making. It’s not perfect, and I wish I could have had a crack at writing the script for this film’s story, but it’s fun. If you don’t enjoy this particular brand of science fiction, you likely won’t see the point of this movie and may even think it’s quite stupid. That’s fair, but I enjoyed the hour and forty minutes I spent with this film.

Final Score: B

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I’ve been putting off writing this review for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve been replaying Persona 3: FES, and those games are time vacuums and exceptionally addicting. The other, more important, reason is that I loved Life of Pi so much that I felt like I needed a good 24 hours of contemplation of the film before I could approach it with a fair and balanced eye. Because, Life of Pi is a technical masterpiece. It joins Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as being one of the best looking films not just of the 2010s but of all time. It is as deeply spiritual a cinematic experience as I’ve had in ages, and there almost isn’t a wasted frame in the entire film. Life of Pi may very well be the best film of Ang Lee‘s storied career. But, despite my rapturous enjoyment of the film, what the film (and more explicitly, the book) has to say about actual religion and agnosticism is sort of silly and juvenile and distracts from an otherwise soaring fantasy coming-of-age film.

And that last sentence may cause confusion for some as I referred to the film as being deeply spiritual yet I mock the actual religious content of the film/book. When I refer to a film as being spiritual (whether that’s The Tree of Life or Synecdoche, New York), I mean that it has something substantive to say about our place in the universe, our relationship with nature, our own pending mortality. Spiritual films (I consider The Road to be one as well) wrack me emotionally by the end not because of sad or melodramatic content but they force me to look universal truths square in the eye and they change my worldview forever when the movie is over. Life of Pi scales that summit and although its own explicitly religious aspirations (which are laid out far more directly in the novel) are shallow and vapid, it doesn’t significantly mar the deep emotional connection I formed with Ang Lee’s masterful film.

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Based off of the critically acclaimed novel by Yann Martell, Life of Pi is a tender coming-of-age tale wrapped in a classic “shipwrecked” fantasy-adventure. Framed (convincingly enough at first that I had to pause the film to see if it was a true story) as adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounts his life story to an aspiring novelist (Rafe Spall). Young Pi (Suraj Sharma) grew up in French India where his parents ran a zoo. An especially bright and curious boy, Pi was interested in religion and spirituality from a young age and became a member of not one, not two, but three different religions as a child. He was simultaneously a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, and saw no reason why that was contradictory. Pi was full of wonder, and there was nothing in the universe that seemed beyond his appreciation, including the dangerous Bengal tiger living in the zoo, Richard Parker.

However, Pi’s family decides to sell the zoo for fear that the family business is going under and that it would be in the family’s best interest to move to French Canada so that Pi and his siblings can have a better life. However, things don’t go according to plan. With all of the animals on board like Noah’s proverbial arc (the religious symbolism there just now dawning on me), the family’s freighter to Canada is sunk by a storm and Pi is the only human survivor. His only company on his life boat is an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and the tiger Richard Parker. And it’s not long before it’s just Pi and Richard Parker. And the rest of the film chronicles the day-to-day survival that Pi must endure if he hopes to make it to land when he’s stuck on a boat with a hungry and vicious carnivore. Pair it with the most impressive visuals this side of Avatar, and you have an idea what to expect with Life of Pi.

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Although, bringing up Avatar may give the false impression that Life of Pi is all style and no substance which it assuredly isn’t. As anyone who has seen Brokeback Mountain can attest, Ang Lee knows how to leverage visual beauty (this time mostly computer generated rather than stunning natural scenery) as a way to complement the thematic content of his pictures. In Brokeback Mountain, the stoic, eternal beauty of the Montana hillsides became a metaphor for the secret escape and primal passions of Jack and Ennis. In Life of Pi, the often surreal dreamscape of the ocean (because fantasy and reality are two sides of the same coin in Life of Pi) and Pi’s utter visual isolation constantly remind the viewer of the film’s themes of a man in a total state of nature and the moral costs we must endure in order to survive when removed from society

Still, even if there wasn’t a contextual reason for the film’s overwhelming beauty, there would still be enough moments of exultant visual pleasure in Life of Pi to make it one of the most important films of the years, and I could fill up an entire review just talking about individual sequences that bowled me over with their raw beauty. There’s a scene about halfway through the film where Pi and Richard Parker (whose name I can no longer say in anything other than an Indian accent) are in the boat at night and beneath them is a bio-luminescent visual feast of jellyfish and algae that is interrupted by the arrival of a surfacing whale. It’s stunning, and there’s another moment, much later in the film, where a starving Pi peers into the ocean and hallucinates a visual phantasmagoria that rivals the “birth of the universe” scene of The Tree of Life.

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He was up against some exceptionally stiff competition this year, so I can’t complain too much about Suraj Sharma not getting an Academy Award nomination (when you’re up against Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Joaquin Phoenix, it’s understandable if you’re passed by). However, for a total newcomer to Hollywood, Suraj Sharma should make an immediate name for himself. He carried this film on his shoulders, because no matter how beautiful it was, if I didn’t care about the boy, it wouldn’t amount to anything. And Suraj made me believe that he was on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger even though he was simply acting against a green screen for most of the film. That takes talent, and I really hope that he makes a career for himself. He is a young talent to watch.

I’m going to draw this review to a close because I’m taking my sister back to Philippi tonight. We both finished our finals today, and we’re going to likely spend most of our summer at home (rather than in Morgantown). She’ll be there because she doesn’t have a place in Morgantown, and I’ll be there because I work in Clarksburg although I still plan on making some trips to Morgantown whenever I need to get away from my family (which may or may not be often. we’ll see). But, I need to pack a little. Anyways, the point of this review is that Life of Pi is far and away the best of the Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen so far. Argo isn’t in the same league of film-making as this masterpiece, and if you have even a passing interest in great movies, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent picture.

Final Score: A

 

The original King Kong is one of the most beloved adventure films of all time. An obscure team of directors and producers that no one in Hollywood had ever heard of (or would really hear much from ever again) brought a fantastic tale of man vs. beast and the power of beauty to tame wild aggression, and they combined this tale with special effects (that while laughably horrible by today’s standards) were unbelievably exciting and terrifying for a 1930’s audience. Before this viewing, I had never actually seen the original King Kong and was only directly familiar with what I now know to be the far superior remake by one Peter Jackson (although I never would have guessed how faithful he was to the original source material). And while this film left me slightly disapppointed because Peter Jackson’s version really fleshed out the story and gave the characters greater depth and the film better emotional resonance, I can easily see why this is a beloved all-time classic.

The film tells the story of Carl Denham, a movie producer filming his newest flick in an uncharted island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He has chosen street waif, Ann Dunham (the absolutely gorgeous and talented Fay Wray), to play the lead. He plucked her right off the streets. They set sail on a steam boat to Skull Island where they come upon a tribe of natives (who are portrayed so unbelievably, ridiculously racist) who worship a giant ape named Kong. Ann is kidnapped by the natives and given to Kong as a sacrificial bride. What follows is an adventure story set against dinosaurs and other fantastic creatures to rescue Ann from the clutches of Kong. Eventually Kong is captured and brought back to NYC where you have the infamous climbing of the Empire State Building. I don’t care that I ruined the story. This movie is like 80 years old and been remade several times.

The effects in the film are pretty damn ridiculous by today’s standards, and there were a couple of times that I literally laughed out loud because of how bad they were, but I have to remember how damn old this film is and how much it shocked and amazed audiences when it was released. Computers weren’t something film studios were using yet to make movies and this film is a pretty grand achievement in early visual effects. The acting is also ridiculously over the top, but Fay Wray was pretty damn good as Ann. There’s a reason she’s the all time reigning “Scream Queen”.

This movie was fun. Their wasn’t a lot of depth to the characters and I know I’ve been spoiled by Jackson’s remake. But I really enjoyed it. It does have one advantage over Peter Jackson’s version though. This film clocks in at about an hour and a half, not well over three hours like Peter Jackson’s film, so at no point do you think any of it has begun to drag on you. If you haven’t seen this film yet, you should watch it simply for the place it holds in the hallowed halls of film history. Just be prepared to take its age into consideration.

Final Score: B

When one is very young, we are indoctrinated by our education system into viewing the founders and explorers and discoverers of this nation as these heroic and mythic figures and the native peoples as savages and heathens. It doesn’t take very long though for us to realize that, in fact, the first Europeans to populate and mark their claim in North America were all sort of ass-hole imperialists and that the Native Americans had their own beautiful cultures and societies that we raped and destroyed. So, when I saw that the next film on my list was a movie about a French Jesuit’s attempts to spread Christianity to the Huron’s, I was mentally preparing myself to become severely pissed off throughout the entire film cause I was expecting some condescending bit of pro-Christianity ridiculousness. Fortunately, the film, Black Robe, gave me a gritty and realistic look at one man’s sincerity of faith in a world where he is guaranteed to fail.

Like I said, the movie is about one man’s attempt to spread Christianity to the Huron people in the northern parts of what is now Canada. He has been chosen by his superiors in the church to be part of a special mission that will go deeper and deeper into Huron territory. It’s dangerous, and the natives leading him don’t particularly care for him. And with good reason, despite the sincerity of his beliefs, he is unable to accept the fact that he is forcing his views and beliefs down the throats of people who already have their own religions and codes. The only other frenchmen to go with him even discusses how their society is ultimately more Christian than our own, except certain aspects of “Christianity” or incompatible with their long-established way of life. So, through the film, you see the full gamut of the native experience and how brutal and nasty it can be. From starving in the winter to the sickness to other tribes that want to kill you and torture you, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant way to live. The film makes the wise decision not to romanticize native life but simply to contrast it with the high-brow condescension of the French.

I’m going to call this film the anti-Dances with Wolves which both romanticized native culture and at the same time was like “the white man is bad. but the white man is also what’s going to save these natives.” It was ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Dances with Wolves but its message is contradictory and silly. In this film, the natives aren’t “noble savages” but they  aren’t portrayed as villains either (with one tribe being a major exception). At the same time, the white people aren’t necessarily villains either. But they don’t do anyone any good at the same time. This film is perhaps one of the most realistic portrayals of this sort of time period that I can think of. I respect it’s decision to play it from a neutral stand point.

The film was beautifully shot on location, and much like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the sense of time and place is fantastic. The scenery in the film is breathtakingly beautiful. I want to go on vacation in northern Canada now. The only thing that is keeping this film from moving up one spot higher in the score its going to receive was the terrible decision to dub English voice acting over the French actors dialogue. They had the Algonquin and Huron languages in their native tongues but thought we couldn’t handle reading French subtitles. I hate dubbing and this really bothered me. Everyone who enjoys historical films should check this out. Just don’t expect some revisionist fantasy or romantic adventure. This film requires you to think and exam the subject material. But you are ultimately rewarded with a great film.

Final Score: A-