Monday, June 1, 2009

Cocoon (1985) & Cocoon: The Return (1988)

Cocoon
Though I usually wouldn't buy a double-movie set, I did with Cocoon and Cocoon: The Return. Released in 1985 and 1988, respectively, they tell the story of a group of aliens who have returned to earth to rescue their compatriots left behind on the sunken continent of Atlantis. The stories also follow a group of elderly folk who find new life with the immortal aliens and their life giving energies. And finally, because it was the 80s, Steve Guttenberg was there as fast talking, lovable, rapscallion. A real stretch for his career.

Cocoon
The first film reveals that in the ancient past, a group of aliens (Antereans) had set a base up on Earth on what we know as Atlantis, as the mythical continent/island sank into the ocean, only a few Antereans were able to escape, the rest were placed in stasis chambers (cocoons) to be retrieved at a later date. The aliens return many centuries later and start their rescue operation. Near where they've rented a house to stage their efforts is an elderly community (it is Florida, after all). The house they rent had been used by a trio of elderly men for its swimming pool. As the cocoons appear, the men realize that they're being rejuvenated, especially sexually. Eventually things go awry and the rescue operation goes awry. The aliens, more advanced, offer to take the elderly with them to their immortal planet.

In the second film, the aliens and the main elderly return to Earth to complete the mission they were forced to abort in the first film. This film also has a great deal of time spent on the elderly who have returned reconnecting with those they left behind. It relies on a lot of the same drama in the first, with more placed on what it means to go back home again. In the end the aliens manage to retrieve all their compatriots and head home ending the series.

Cocoon: The Return
I don't know that I would have purchased Cocoon: The Return if it didn't come with Cocoon and that together they weren't fairly cheap. The first film does enough that you don't really need the sequel, though as far as sequels go it's not a total loss. In many ways the movies still work for some 80s style sci-fi and our uncomfortableness with elderly sexuality that was further explored in the great "Golden Girls" TV series. Check them out for some 80s Spielbergian science fiction.

Cocoon: The Return

Friday, May 29, 2009

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
I first saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the campus theater at Trinity. It was the first time I'd seen an action movie like it, and it blew me away. It combined not only fast-paced martial arts and weaponry, but also breathtaking vistas of China. Though other movies that have been made sense have added to the cinematic beauty of martial arts films, this was my first experience and retains a soft spot in my heart.

In essence, the plot is driven by the characters inability to have what they desire. Yun-Fat Chow plays a warrior who attempts to give up violence to achieve enlightenment only to be drawn back into the world by his desire to avenge his master;s death, and a love for Michelle Yeoh that they are honor bound to deny. At the same time, Ziyi Zang plays the daughter of a governor who is restricted by her role in society from achieving the great adventurous life of a warrior that she not only desires but is highly capable of leading. She is also prevented from being with her great love, a noble thief, Chen Chang.

Michelle Yeoh, Yun-Fat Chow, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
With those restrictions in place, the story of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon unfolds beautifully with some amazing scenes of fast-paced martial arts. The drama of the story is excellently matched with the action, as director Ang Lee seems to have almost an innate understanding of making beautiful cinematic gems. Of course, the action was so fast paced that it made it difficult to make any screen caps of the action scenes. Instead I was forced to use largely stationary shots. Unfortunately these shots don't represent how awesomely powerful the women in the film were, with most on par to their male counterparts. In fact, Yun-Fat is the only martial artist capable of defeating any of the women.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon changed the way I viewed martial arts films. It became less about simply awesome action, though obviously this remained a concern, but also about the cinematics of the film. If I had never seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon I probably would not have seen other great films like Hero or House of Flying Daggers both of which took the impressive cinematic visuals to new heights. In a lot of ways, this movie is like The Matrix there are those movies which came before, and those movies which came after and which will always be judged against it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Commando (1985)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando
Commando is a quintessential Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It involves a lot of explosions, a lot of violence, and a lot of stupid one liners after killing villains. In other words, it's exactly what one would want when seeing an Arnold1 movie, and exactly what made him famous.

The plot centers around a South American warlord who had been deposed by Arnold's platoon and seeks to use Arnold to return to power. In order to get Arnold to play along, he kidnaps his daughter,2 a rookie villain mistake. Arnold then unleashes his fury on all who laid a finger on his daughter. He single-handedly kills an entire compound of armed men.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando
The movie relies on some hilarious action movie clich├ęs. Our fist glimpses of Arnold show how he's created a quaint rustic life for himself, felling trees and feeding deer with his daughter. After kidnapping her, he goes balls out to get her back, but still finds the time to make snappy one liners after killing villains. Some choice lines include: After killing a guy and covering him with a blanket, "Don't wake my friend, he's dead tired." After impaling a guy with a pipe into a steam pipe, "Let off some steam." I don't know who writes this stuff, but he's a genius.

I wouldn't be a good feminist if I didn't point out that this movie does, unfortunately, rely on the trope of a woman who is basically kidnapped by the hero, is hysterical, but then, for some unknown reason, continues to follow him and seems to fall in love with him. The underlying message is that women shouldn't worry if a guy they've met is controlling and obviously violent. Even though he seems to have no respect for her personal property, the fact that he's doing it "for a good reason" absolves all guilt on his part. While action movies have done a lot to beef up the women in them, they still largely tend to follow this unfortunate path.

Vernon Wells, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Commando
Notes:
1. As mentioned in previous posts, I shall use the common usage of "Arnold" rather than his last name of "Schwarznegger."
2. Played by a very young Alyssa Malano.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Destroyer
Arnold Schwarzenegger's second romp as the mighty warrior Conan proved to be his last, though he does play a Conan-esque character in Red Sonja. Conan the Destroyer is rather different from its predecessor. For one, the character of Conan has already been established and this film marks only one journey on his path to becoming a King. This outing also contains a great deal more humor throughout, some from Conan, much from his thieving sidekick.1 Conan is also more of a team player in this film. While he had three allies in the first film, Conan spends much of this film with five other companions, many of whom are fine warriors in their own right.

The movie follows Conan as he escorts a princess to find a key then horn for a sorceress who hopes to bring her demon god to earth. He works to help her (ignorant of her final motives) as she has promised to return his love from the first movie should he help her. The film has much more of a quest feel to it than the first which was simply a revenge and origin story. In the end, Conan frees another kingdom from an evil despot and sets off on his own once more. Theoretically there would have been a third Conan film to finish his story, but it never happened.

Conan the Destroyer
I originally purchased both Conan films together. While the first was presented in anamorphic widescreen, this DVD was not. As a result, it appeared squished on my TV. While it remained widescreen, the black bars were matted on. In other words, it wasn't optimized for 16:9 televisions. This may not have been something I would have noticed had I not been watching so many movies together with each other. It's unfortunate that the production for the DVD was so low.

Conan the Destroyer is not a movie that one needs to see, however I own it because it came with Conan the Conqueror, I like to be complete in my series ownership, and I like Arnold movies. Check it out if you haven't seen it.

Notes:
1. His thieving sidekick seems to have been replaced by a white guy. In Conan the Barbarian he was played by a Latino or possibly Filipino... Though it's not the same character, it is interesting they replaced him with a character who is almost entirely the same, but white.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian
Though he'd starred in Hercules in New York over a decade earlier, Conan the Barbarian truly marked Arnold Schwarzenegger's arrival as an action star. As the titular hero, Arnold1 delivered his ridiculous lines with great conviction sold largely by his muscled physique.

The story follows the legendary Conan from his childhood through his first great adventure. The audience knows that one day Conan will become a great king, but this is not that story. In other words, if this movie is a box-office smash, be prepared for sequels. Of course, only one sequel was made, but that's another entry.

The primary crux of the story is that Conan, upon achieving freedom from his days as a slave and gladiator set off in the world to seek revenge upon the evil sorcerer and snake-cult leader (James Earl Jones) who destroyed his village as a child. Along the way he falls in love, meets a comic sidekick, and a shamanistic protector of his own (who also happens to be the narrator of this epic tale).

Both Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster were released in 1982.2 I mention this only because both have surprisingly similar plots involving muscled nearly naked men fighting against an evil sorcerer to restore some sort of balance in the world. Conan fared much better than Beastmaster in theaters, and the latter probably owes its eventual success to repeated cable showings.

In the end, this movie is a classic sword and sorcerer action flick that truly marked the start of Arnold's career as an actor. It helps to have a camp sensibility when watching it, as the utter ridiculousness could wear on those without one. Either way, it remains a classic for a reason.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Conan the Barbarian
Mongolian: Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.

Notes:
1. While I normally use last to refer to actors in films, Arnold is almost always referred to by his first name in the media. Though he hasn't forsaken his last name as Roseanne or Cher did, he is undoubtedly the most famous Arnold alive today. This may all stem from the fact that "Schwarzenegger" was too difficult for people to say and spell, but I shall abide by the common convention and refer to him as Arnold.
2. Also the year of my birth.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Clash of the Titans
Though technically the story of Perseus and not of any Titans, Clash of the Titans is a fun romp through Greek mythology. It follows the life of Perseus (Harry Hamlin), son of Zeus (Sir Laurence Olivier), throughout his life up to his marriage to Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Throughout his life he befriends Pegasus, gets a pet mechanical owl, and kills Calibos,1 the Grogan Medusa, and the Kraken.2

One of the crazy things about Clash of the Titans is the casting. In addition to Hamlin3 and Olivier, the cast includes Dame Maggie Smith as the goddess Thetis, Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, Burgess Meredith as the poet Ammon. The movie also contains special effects by Ray Harryhausen who did the effects for many of the classic Greek legend films (notably the Sinbad and Jason films). With Harryhausen's special effects, as well as its legendary casting, it almost feels like a film out of the 50s and 60s rather than the 80s.

Ursula Andress, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Susan Fleetwood, Clash of the Titans
The pacing of the film also feels a bit slower than a film from the 80s, so watching Clash of the Titans feels like watching a classic epic film. Perhaps not as Cecille B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments or Stanley Kubrik's Spartacus, but a classic film nevertheless. The movie does incorporate some humorous elements that remove the classic epic element, the most obvious example being the mechanical owl sent to help Perseus, and Meredith's frequent mugging for the camera.

This movie is good for when you want something with some light action, and some epic qualities. I'm not sure that I would use it as an instructional video on Greek mythology, as it's not entirely accurate to the Perseus myth. Despite this, it's still fun to watch. If you haven't seen it, check it out. If you have seen it, watch it again.

Harry Hamlin, Clash of the Titans
Notes:
1. I believe Calibos may be a creation of the film makers. He is the son of a real Goddess, but one that I was largely unfamiliar with.
2. The Kraken is the only Titan in the film, but I believe Kraken are part of Norse mythology, not Greek... So close!
3. Though, this was his first big movie.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Chorus Line (1985)

A Chorus Line
A Chorus Line is the film that derailed this project/blog in October. That, and school getting back into full swing. That said, A Chorus Line is a musical that I tend to enjoy the songs from much more than the actual plot itself. This could largely be because the plot is fairly basic: a bunch of nobody's are hoping to be somebody by auditioning for the chorus line (i.e., background players) in a Broadway musical. There's a subplot where a former star is hoping to get her life back on track by auditioning again, but her former relationship with the director causes some drama. The plot though is really just a mechanism for each character to sing about how they hope they can make it, why they haven't made it, and why they love what they do, and really that's the only reason to see the movie.

Michael Douglas, A Chorus Line
There are quite a few really good songs in this movie that I enjoy more than others. My favorite songs are probably "Sing!" about a woman who can't sing, "Nothing" about a woman who can't act like her acting coach wants, and "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" about a woman who has many doors opened to her after getting plastic surgery. These songs are really about failure, but contain a good deal of humor and speak to the indomitable spirit of the performers in their quest for fame.

This movie found a place in my DVD library because it came in a pack of other musicals. I recommend it for those who enjoy the songs, but the plot created to move through the songs leaves something to be desired.

A Chorus Line, One