Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon. Concord Production 1973.

Before watching the movie:

This is lauded as possibly the best martial arts movie of all time, but I’m looking for something about the story to interest me and it seems like the barest excuse plot. British Intelligence goes to a martial arts instructor and points him at a crime lord. Oh, I guess there’s a tournament he’s going undercover in to get close to the bad guy. That’s a bit better than them just saying “go fetch”, but it’s still a pretty thin plot.

I would say the fights need to be exceptionally good to make up for the sketchy plot, but of course they are. That’s what everyone already cared about with this movie. I feel like I’m being weird for asking it to also have a story.

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Under Siege

Under Siege. Alcor Films 1992

Before watching the movie:

Though the log line is essentially “Die Hard on a battleship”, the Navy setting somehow gets me thinking more of Jack Ryan. Thanks to the movies, I think of Jack Ryan as a civilian CIA bureaucrat, but a moment’s research turned up that he’s ex-Marine. So maybe Seagal’s character here is closer to Jack Ryan than I thought, but I was more interested on my initial discovery that Seagal is serving as a cook than when I found out he’s an ex-SEAL. It takes away from the appeal of an underdog for me the more prepared that underdog is for the challenge they face in the movie.

The fact that the terrorists are led by a disgruntled CIA operative intrigues me. Most 90s bad guys are generic terrorists, but they’re usually Eastern European, maybe with a specific ex-Soviet flavor. The head terrorist being rogue CIA opens up a possibility of critiquing American policies rather than just wrapping the good guys in the Stars and Stripes and painting the bad guys as whatever the top enemy of the US government is at the time. Though since this probably required extensive cooperation with the US Department of Defense in order to be able to use the battleship setting, I doubt it would be all that forward thinking.

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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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My Best Friend’s Wedding

My best Friend’s Wedding.
Predawn Productions 1997.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve been dimly aware of this as a relatively standout romantic comedy for a while, but I never really looked into it much. The idea of having to watch an old flame get married and how one copes with that is interesting, but as a romcom I don’t know if it’s going to have the kind of message I think would be more appropriate or if the old flame is going to leave the bride because true love.

Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz are like two different generations of romcom royalty and it’s a little odd they’re cast opposite each other. Dermot Mulroney is a name I’ve seen around from time to time but even looking over his filmography I cannot remember seeing him in anything, and he looks like a stand-in for whatever more recognizable actor they actually wanted. I guess I’ve seen Rupert Everett in things other than Inspector Gadget, but that’s the only thing I ever think of for him.

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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.

The Phantom of 42nd Street

The Phantom of 42nd Street.
Producers Releasing Corp. 1945.

Before watching the movie:

Sometimes I just want a pulpy mystery. And it doesn’t hurt if it’s closer to one hour than one and a half or two because I’m busy.

I know I’ve seen the name Alan Mowbray around, but I couldn’t place him to anything specific. Seems like someone I should know.

I wonder if audiences outside New York are supposed to get the reference to 42nd street being a cross street with Broadway (something I only know because of the poster) and presumably a place where there are theaters. My initial guess would be that 42nd street would be far enough out of town that it’s not a very nice theater, but New York is gigantic next to the cities I’ve gotten a feel for, so maybe it’s in the heart of the theater district. I don’t know. I’m not a New Yorker, much like most of the people who would be watching this.

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The Ghoul

The Ghoul.
Gaumont British Pictures 1933.

Before watching the movie:

It never really seemed consistent to me what kind of supernatural entity a ghoul is. I kind of settled on a subtype of ghost that’s more corporeal than a spectre. I looked up the definition and it wasn’t very helpful. “A monstrous humanoid associated with graveyards and consuming human flesh” is broad enough to include zombies, only this is from pre-Islamic Arabia instead of from Haitian Vodou.

In this movie, Boris Karloff comes back from the dead to get revenge on those who wronged him, but I don’t think he eats flesh, just strangles or snaps necks or something. I expect a lot of overwrought tension that comes off as corny today.

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The Old Dark House (1963)

The Old Dark House.
Columbia Pictures 1963.

Before watching the movie:

I learned of this movie from a preshow for some spooky movie at a theater where they play classic videos along the theme of the movie during seating. A horror comedy starring… Tom Poston? The quirky old neighbor on like a dozen 80s/90s sitcoms? In a slasher comedy of errors? Well, why not? For one thing, apparently this is a remake nobody asked for, but I’m not burdened by the expectations of the 1932 movie, so I’ll probably enjoy it more than it was enjoyed at the time.

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Fright Night

Fright Night. Vistar Films 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I somehow got the sense that there’s a whole blend of spooky stuff going on in this movie to the point that it might be an anthology movie or at least have an episodic progression. Turns out it’s just “there’s a vampire next door”. I guess the broad title comes from the horror show that the main character likes to watch that he eventually recruits the host from after nobody else believes him.

I’ve also gotten the impression this is really campy in just the right way, but it doesn’t seem to actually be considered a comedy, so I think I probably know what kind of tone to expect, but I thought this was a completely different movie until earlier today.

After watching the movie:

Charley Brewster is obsessed with two things: the late night horror movie show Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent the former star of cheesy vampire movies, and getting his girlfriend of over a year Amy to do more than kiss with him. He notices a coffin being carried into the basement of the house next door, and the next day sees a woman entering that house, and later sees the neighbor in the window brandish fangs and begin to bite her. Charley sees her appear on the news the next day as the second killing in town that week. After a failed attempt to get the police to intervene, Charley realizes he’s tipped his hand and now the vampire, “Jerry”, will be coming for him. Charley tries to solicit Peter Vincent’s help, but Vincent dismisses him too. Concerned with Charley’s obsession, Amy and their friend “Evil” Ed pay Vincent to help them prove to Charley that Jerry isn’t a vampire, but Vincent gets spooked off when, after Jerry passes the staged tests, Vincent sees that Jerry has no reflection in a mirror.

The first half of the movie seems very disconnected from the title, since Vincent only appears on TV and Charley is completely alone in his knowledge of Jerry’s secret. Even though this isn’t much more than 90 minutes, it felt like it was an hour of Charley alone and then an hour of Charley with his friends and Vincent. Eventually it comes to the point where it feels like it’s been building to make the title meaningful, but for a long time, it seemed like an afterthought title.

When I read that the horror host’s name was “Peter Vincent”, my immediate thought was that he would be a legally distinct echo of Vincent Price, but Roddy McDowall completely removed any impression of Price from my mind. He has an entirely different take on playing a former B-horror hero.

Jerry Dandridge seems to be an early step in modernizing vampire depictions. There’s a visible line running from him to the characters in Interview with The Vampire to the Twilight vampires. He’s aggressively normal, at least until his illusion slips. Charismatic in a modern sensibility. And they do take advantage of the R rating to demonstrate his seductive abilities. But I don’t think there’s any name that strikes less of a “vampire” chord than “Jerry Dandridge”.

This is just a little short of the true classic quality, but I can definitely see its merit as a cult classic, and it’s not surprising there’s an extensive franchise underneath it. The charm is there, there’s an inventiveness (or reinventiveness) to it, but it doesn’t quite have the polish it could have.