Mystery Men

Mystery Men. Dark Horse Entertainment 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I have hardly any idea what this movie is like, and it kind of occupies the same headspace with Mystery Team, another cult movie that I think is ensemble-based that I need to get around to, but it looks like of the large ensemble there are a lot of big names, but only one I’d expect to be involved in something like this. My early impression is something like Watchmen by way of Kick-Ass. A deconstruction of superhero narratives, but as a farcical parody.

The timing of the movie should make an interesting tone. The late 90s were a time where superhero movies weren’t very popular, and sometimes not very well made. After Superman and Batman fell apart, the superhero genre struggled in movies, but the technology was starting to provide the ability make more convincing effects than the stunning work of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, but the cynicism and assembly line pop culture of the post-Dark Knight/cinematic universe era hadn’t yet come in. Without global tentpole scrutiny from the studio, maybe a superhero movie could even Say Something. That’s probably a lot to ask of a failed spoof, but the possibilities are there.

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Congo

Congo. Paramount Pictures 1995.

Before watching the movie:

So much as I thought I knew what this was about, it seems I completely misunderstood this movie. I had the idea this was some kind of action drama about conservation, like fighting poachers or something. Maybe a military operation in the jungle.

What this actually seems to have something to do with is a new species of killer gorilla and also a signing gorilla, and the preview I saw looked a lot funnier than I expected. So I’m completely at a loss for what to expect now, besides Tim Curry and Ernie Hudson being in it.

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The Shaggy Dog

The Shaggy Dog. Walt Disney Productions 1959.

Before watching the movie:

While I’d seen brief promos for this movie before with other Disney home video rereleases, I never really got an idea of what it was like beyond somebody turning into a dog. I did see the Tim Allen remake, but if that draws on anything past the “human turned into a dog” idea, it looks like it has more to do with the sequel The Shaggy D.A. I do see that where that remake used genetic research as the catalyst for the metamorphosis, I’m kind of amused that this is just “a magic ring”. Or rather, a magic ring the Borgias had, because dropping random historical names makes things sound more legitimate.

I know a few more details now but I still don’t really know what shape the story will take. It’s always nice to see Fred MacMurray though.

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Election

Election. Bona Fide Productions 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I never knew much more about this movie than that Matthew Broderick is in it and it’s probably some kind of political satire, so it always lived in my head near movies like Swing Vote, Welcome to Mooseport, and The Campaign.

On taking a closer look, this is centered around a high school class president race, and the central conflict seems to be between a teacher and a student, so I’m intrigued at the prospect of a more unorthodox satire and wondering what political parallels could develop from this dynamic. Or maybe I’ve gotten it completely wrong and this is just a study of high school politics, but I don’t think so. Stories that came from novels generally have some kind of more applicable theme.

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The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin. Walt Disney Pictures 1967.

Before watching the movie:

This is another one it’s hard to find much description that doesn’t just recap the entire plot, so I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to see for a while. A rich Boston kid running away to Gold Rush California to have adventures? Eh, not too exciting. The kid getting accompanied by his family’s very buttoned-up butler out of concern for his safety, and the butler is played by Roddy McDowall? This is somewhat more relevant to my interests.

I suspect this is going to have more of an episodic structure, as the Disney equivalent of a pulp Western adventure. Apparently it’s a musical, which could go either way. Being based on a book, there will probably be a decent amount of substance, but mostly I expect loosely connected Western-themed hijinks and barely justified showstopper songs.

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The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada. Dune Entertainment 2006.

Before watching the movie:

I think the main reason I was never especially drawn to this movie was because I’m not that into fashion, but then movies can be themed around anything without requiring intimate knowledge of them. And maybe it was also something that didn’t appeal to me because it’s a women-oriented movie and I wasn’t as interested in those in 2006.

I do vaguely recall it being among the movies that I first got a real glimpse of what’s interesting about it at the Academy Awards that year, but like most other movies that I never really considered until the Oscars showed me more than any trailer did, I never really followed up.

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Unidentified Flying Oddball

Unidentified Flying Oddball.
Walt Disney Pictures 1979.

Before watching the movie:

While the title isn’t very indicative of what the movie is about, upon reading that it’s about an astronaut accidentally winding up in the time of King Arthur, I’m incredibly unsurprised that it’s an adaptation of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but jazzed up with space. And a robot too, for good measure. I hope the “android double” won’t be too ridiculous.

I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen Jim Dale perform in anything, but of course I know him pretty well as the audiobook narrator for the Harry Potter series in the US. I would not have expected him for Mordred though. A few of the other names are vaguely familiar but I can’t tie them to anything specific.

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Jane and the Lost City

Jane and the Lost City.
New World Pictures 1987.

Before watching the movie:

The legend of the comic strip “Jane” is of a series of contrived pretenses to get the attractive young woman character to lose her clothes, especially around soldiers, drawn as a morale booster for British soldiers in WWII. When I was investigating the background of what this movie is based on, I couldn’t even get much more out of Wikipedia, because the legend is that pervasive. But that just made me even more curious how this pulp adventure-sounding story could relate to that beyond jamming an attractive girl named Jane whose clothes keep falling off into the plot.

I was able to find an article that traces a somewhat more comprehensive history (part 1 of 4, sequential parts are backward in the archive for some reason), where I was able to learn that it started as a high society satire/romance comic a bit like how I imagine early Blondie was before it fossilized around Dagwood’s suburban atomic family, and only later did the titillation creep in, and the war only took it over still later than that, but that reaches the end of the scope of the article, so while I have an impression that Jane was getting into war-related scrapes as an officer’s secretary, I still don’t have much of an idea of how that translates into a movie described as “Winston Churchill sends Jane on a mission to retrieve diamonds from a lost African city before the Nazis can get them.”

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Nancy Drew, Reporter

Nancy Drew, Reporter. First National Pictures 1939.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever read a Nancy Drew story. I was probably more likely to have attempted the Hardy Boys, but neither interested me that much growing up. I was much more interested in Encyclopedia Brown.

I don’t recall a particular career or pastime being mentioned as what gets Nancy into sleuthing, and a quick skim of the Wikipedia page seems to show that she’s just a smart kid who happens to be in sleuthing distance of a lot of mysteries, like a teenaged Miss Marple. I was a little worried that by using “being a reporter” to justify her investigation into this mystery, the movie would be applying the name to a much older character, but it seems that she’s a school paper reporter, trying to win a journalism prize. Still seems like a lot of unnecessary scaffolding on “smart kid solves mysteries”.

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Troy

Troy. Warner Bros. Pictures 2004.

Before watching the movie:

What is this movie? Pointing a money canon at the screen. Probably billions of dollars to tell one of the oldest stories we have written down. Big battles, bigger stars, almost three hours of runtime for them to compete for like cinematic gladiators. Pretty and exciting and violent and maybe it even resembles the source material, but at least it’s Epic. That’s the impression I’ve always had of this movie as a former Latin student.

After watching the movie:

The city-states of the Aegean are at constant war, and Agamemnon of Mycenae intends to build an empire by conquering them, despite owing every battle to Achilles and his leadership of the Myrmidons. Meanwhile, as Trojan crown prince Hector has just finished negotiating a peace with Menelaus of Sparta, Hector’s brother Paris, infamous ladies’ man, took up an affair with Menelaus’s wife Helen. When Hector and his Trojans set sail for home, Helen leaves with them to stay with Paris. Seething from the insult, Menelaus goes to his brother Agamemnon to ask him to bring all the Greek armies together to take Helen back from Troy so he can kill her himself, which Agamemnon readily agrees to as the perfect excuse to add Troy to his collection of subjugated kingdoms. As the Greeks lay siege to Troy, Hector tries to find the diplomatic solutions that lead to the least harm done to his country and his people, but still accepts that Helen is a Trojan princess now. Meanwhile Hector’s father King Priam insists that everything is in the will of the gods and nothing can be done to change whatever fate is in store for them. While most of the Greeks loyally fight for Agamemnon, Achilles fights more for his own personal glory, and loathes being in service to a king that hides behind his troops.

I feel like 2004 is really late for a movie about Ancient Greece that’s been cast from a Who’s Who in British Acting with some pretty Americans thrown in for domestic appeal. While it was still too early for anyone to have considered it, I’d be much more interested in an all-Mediterranean production where people speak with actual Greek accents instead of pretending Ancient Greece was a Royal Shakespeare Company show. There’s at least one scene that takes place in a stone ruin, and while I guess that those were not unheard of in those times, it seems more like it was included because “Ancient Greece means broken columns scattered around the hillside, right?”

While this movie credits that it is “based on The Illiad“, Troy is sympathetic and they include an Aeneas cameo, so it feels more heavily influenced by the Aneid. The Illiad was written by Greeks to illustrate Greek glory, while the Aneid was written by a Roman to concoct a Trojan pedigree for Rome and therefore Troy was the nobler kingdom and Greece only won because they cheated. Greece is clearly the aggressor in the wrong here, and while Paris is also in the wrong, the rest of Troy is just caught cleaning up his mistakes. Paris isn’t even all that wrong because the first thing we learn about Menelaus is he ignores his wife to play with prettier, younger women right in front of her.

The main exception to the Greeks being the villains is the bad boy antihero Achilles, who only wants his own personal glory while chafing under his kingdom’s obligation to serve at the call of Menelaus. And yet despite his personal motivations he’s also shown to be one of the most honorable Greeks through his protection of Briseis, a captured priestess who happens to be Hector’s cousin. From the quick research I did, it sounds like they cleaned up the relationship a bit to make Achilles more noble, but I was surprised she was in the original material at all since the main thing I knew about Achilles’ personal relationships going in is that a lot of people enthusiastically read Patroclus as Achilles’ one true love and for all I knew, Briseis was created to give him a safe heterosexual love interest while playing Patroclus as his surrogate son.

While the last people who deserve a happy ending are the final couple, there’s a strong sense that the best ending isn’t to live happily ever after, but to get a prominent death. All the people we care most about get a classically tragic and noble death. All the people we like least get an exciting death at a hero’s hand. Paris and Helen just survive by hiding in the city until they escape while everyone else goes out and dies for them, and I guess they have to spend the rest of their lives with that knowledge.

There’s a ton of story in the fight sequences and for once I can actually follow what’s happening really well, and I can’t just tune out until the music dies down and I look up to see what the outcome of all the punching is. This is somewhat rare for modern action movies, and the prevailing theory is that a generation of cinematographers grew up on pan and scanned video making it impossible to read the fight scenes and decided that shaking the camera and cutting too quickly to get any useful information is how to make things exciting. But I think more than that, in this case the Illiad details a lot of events that happened in battle, so they actually had story beats to include in the sequence instead of just scripting “a fight scene happens and it’s the choreographer’s job to fill the next five minutes”.

This is one of the most engaging action movies I’ve watched in a while, especially considering the runtime and how much of it is action sequences. This is a throwback to the gigantic productions of the classics from the golden age of cinema, and while I’m pretty tired of cinematic epics casting white people with British accents and togas as Greeks and Romans (or proto-Romans here), they sure do make it almost worth the 2 hours, 40+ minutes.