Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, June 29, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

In our modern blockbuster landscape, where films are given release dates before they even have scripts and franchises are plotted out a full decade in advance, television has started to resemble movies and movies have started to resemble television. More than once, Disney/Marvel has plucked up a television director to make one of their superhero epics. It makes sense, as TV directors are used to delivering a consistent product on a fast time table. Joe and Anthony Russo would make the leap from directing episodes of “Community” and “Arrested Development” to blockbusters with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Unlike Phase Two's other sequels, this one would be acclaimed by critics and fans alike.

Since waking up in the modern day and fighting in the Battle of New York, Steve Rogers has struggled with fitting in with the 21st century. He continues to work with SHIELD, though he feels increasingly uncertain about his employers' motivations. Especially when Nick Fury tells him about a new project that will see the skies filled with high-tech Helicarriers able to snipe out threats before they happen. When Fury uncovers something suspicious, he becomes a target by unknown forces. A mysterious super assassin known as the Winter Soldier is pursuing him. Soon, Captain America and Black Widow go on the run, chased by evil forces within their own organization. And the truth will only grow more sinister from there.

One of the benefits of the Marvel model is that you can fit almost any type of movie into the superhero action/adventure mold. In the promotional lead-up to “The Winter Soldier's” release, much talk was made of how much seventies paranoia thrillers influenced the film. Robert Redford's casting as the head of SHIELD was a deliberate nod towards the genre's history. That distrust of the government agencies, of not knowing who to trust, certainly informs the film. Moreover, it reflects Steve Rogers' uncertain feelings about the modern world. Captain America can agree certain things are undeniably good, like rescuing hostages from mercenaries. Yet when he learns his rescue missions has a secondary purpose of grabbing information, he's aghast. Increasingly through the film, Cap learns that government agencies are less interested in protecting the innocent and more concerned with consolidating their own power, controlling the masses, and maintaining a status quo.

This should've been, essentially, a story about Captain America confronting America's role as an imperialistic force of evil that commits atrocities and subjugates whole countries in order to keep a select group of billionaires rich and powerful. Instead, “The Winter Soldier” wimps out and makes it Nazis. In a twist that blew everyone's mind at the time, SHIELD has been Hydra all along. Yet being told that America was good until secret Nazis took it over from the inside-out, instead of running with the truth that America has always been secretly evil, runs counter to the film's seventies paranoia thriller tone. (And now, in 2019, we know the Nazis didn't even have to be doing their thing in secret to gain the public's acceptance again.) The movie then lurches into some Alex Jones-esque New World Order plot about the government mass-murdering millions of people. It's a disappointing  pay-off, that sucks out most of the complexity, to the story that was more daring up to that point.

Something Marvel Studios likes to do is take catchy titles from their various comic stories and apply them to otherwise original films. “The Winter Soldier” is only a loose adaptation of the comic story arc of the same name. In fact, the Winter Solider himself is a supporting character in the film. If you know your comics, you know the Winter Soldier is Bucky, Captain America's thought-dead BFF from his World War II days. This conflict, where Cap is forced to fight his former best friend, who has no memory of their time together, is suppose to be the emotional heart of the movie. Yet, because its pushed to the margins for most of the run time, it doesn't work as well as it should. Exactly because Bucky is now a brain-washed super assassin, he doesn't get to show much emotion. The film also holds off on the reveal of the Winter Soldier's longer than perhaps it should, leaving even less time for the weight of the bromance to be felt.

Of the various different modes “The Winter Solider” functions in, by far my favorite is when it's a road trip comedy about Captain America and Black Widow going on the road together. Chris Evans and Scarlet Johannson have fantastic chemistry together. He's one of the most moral heroes around, while Black Widow is as fatale as a femme can get. Watching the two play off each other is great fun, especially the various distracting strategies that must be employed as they walk through a mall. Or the cute, reoccurring gag about Natalia trying to get Steve a date. The party improves when Sam Wilson, otherwise known as the Falcon, shows up to become Steve's new boyfriend. He acts as a likable straight man to the snarking Cap and Widow. (Anthony Mackie is a game addition to the MCU's cast, even if I seriously dislike the lack of color in his costume.)

I think the main reason so many people were in awe of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is because it features some pretty bad-ass action sequences. Even if the movie's version of Batroc the Leaper is a total lame-o, Cap's kung-fu fight with him is nicely acrobatic. (The movie does do a fun twist on Armin Zola though.) Nick Fury being pinned down various police officers, attempting to break into his high-tech spy truck, is a wonderfully tense car chase that also features a torrent built into a car console. The likely action high-light of the movie is the moment Cap realizes how compromised SHIELD is, when he's locked in an elevator with a bunch of guys who all want to kill him. It's another fight with a long build-up, this one playing nicely off the confined area.

There's a lot of cool action beats in “The Winter Soldier.” Cap taking down a Quinjet with a motorcycle and his shield is another one. The entire last act features a number of cool interactions between Captain America and random goons. Yet some of the action sequences are disappointingly unstable. A knife fight between Steve and the Winter Soldier, right before he discover he's Bucky, features far too much shaky-cam. The car crash that proceeds that sequence is similarly hard-to-follow. Moments like this make you think the Russo brothers really weren't that use yet to making big budget action movies. There's also one of those fake digital zooms when a Hellicarrier crashes into a building in the last act.

I too loved “The Winter Soldier” the first time I watched it. And, obviously, it's still a really good movie. The cast is fantastic and are clearly having a ball playing off each other. Sometimes, watching actors you like play characters you enjoy is reward enough. The action scenes are overall extremely good, with a few really rising above the pack. However, it does bug me that the movie isn't nearly as daring as it think it is. In retrospect, I also dislike the direction this installment would take the entire “Captain America” franchise. While the movie has its flaws and strengths, it would still be the best of Phase Two's sequels. [7/10]

Friday, June 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2014)

11. Not Safe for Work

Following his involvement with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you would think Joe Johnston would be the hottest he had been in decades. “Captain America” was a franchise launcher, of course, though its 370 million dollar gross seems modest compared to what these movies have raked in since. Instead of immediately going to work on another large scale blockbuster, Johnston’s next film would veer in the opposite direction. He would team with Blumhouse Production, Hollywood’s current lead purveyor of low budget genre films, to direct a small-scale thriller called “Not Safe for Work.” It would seem like a project with a quick turn around. The plan was probably this, as is usually the plan for Blumhouse’s films: Shoot a buzzy project cheaply and quickly, drop it into theaters during a not-so-busy weekend, throw in some decent promotion, and watch it make a profit in the first weekend even if it comes nowhere near the top of the box office charts.

That was the plan, one assumes. “Not Safe for Work” was set for a 2012 theatrical release originally. However, it would seem that Universal, the film’s distributor, deemed the movie not safe for theaters. The movie would sit on a shelf for two whole years before being released onto video-on-demand and straight-to-DVD in 2014. Why this happened, I’m not sure, as there’s very little information about the movie’s production. Maybe Universal was still stinging over Johnston’s “Wolfman” remake? Or maybe everyone just thought the movie was shitty. Due to its limited release, “Not Safe for Work” is among Joe Johnston’s most obscure films. Has it been rightfully discarded or is there something worthy here?

A man enters the office building of Dennings, a pharmaceutical company, and kills several executives and then himself. Turns out he was a whistleblower against the drug producers and was frustrated with the lack of action against them. He was also the primary legal witness against the company, frustrating Tom Miller, the paralegal assigned to the case. Tom isn’t popular at his office and, following an unsolicited memo about another case against a crime family, he’s fired. Returning to the office late at night to retrieve his phone, he sees a strange man entered the building. This is a hitman, who goes about murdering anyone in his way as he seeks something. Tom is trapped in the building with the killer and finds those he loves endangered.

Considering his previous attempts at horror had strictly been of the big budget variety, you can see why Johnston would want to take a wack at a lower budget genre affair. While “Not Safe for Work” sounds a bit like a slasher movie on paper, the execution leans more on the thriller side of things. The two modes are effectively combined. We have the basically unstoppable killer, relentlessly pursuing his target. While there’s quite a few deaths in the film — with the weapons ranging from a pistol and an axe to an extension cord — the focus is not on the gore. Instead, Johnston does a decent job generating some mild tension in the numerous stalking and hiding scenes. Even if he also throws in some lame jump scares.

There is a fair amount of novelty in “Not Safe for Work’s” setting. A few times over the years, horror films or thrillers have been set in office buildings. There is, admittedly, something creepy about the cubicles and sterile hallways of a nondescript building seen without the glow of the bland florescence overhead. (Though you can imagine the screenwriters thought of the title and then worked backwards from there.) The film makes decent use of its location, utilizing the file rooms and automated toilets that are commonplace in office buildings across the country.

Unfortunately, “Not Safe for Work” is not as creepy or atmospheric as it could have been. Johnston did not work with Shelly Johnson here, his usual DP. Instead, the film was shot by Jonathan Taylor, largely a second unit man for big budget action flicks who was making his cinematographer debut here. (He previously worked on “Captain America,” which is probably a coincidence.) Sadly, Taylor does not make a positive first impression. “Not Safe for Work” has a very flat presentation, looking quite a lot like a television movie. The colors are quite muted, the darkness and shadows of the office building not really popping the way they should. The camera angles are fairly basic. A cheap budget doesn’t necessarily mean a movie should be cheap looking but “Not Safe for Work” does look cheap.

“Not Safe for Work” is clearly aiming for some subversive social commentary. Quite expectedly, the crime family subplot ends up being a red herring. Instead, the killer has actually been hired by the drug company to cover up their illegal activities. The head of the law firm is totally aware of this, compliant in the crimes. Considering its office setting, taking aims at the evils of corporate America is rather obviously baked into the movie’s DNA. However, the movie treats this reveal as such a twist, one among several, that anything biting about this idea gets a bit lost.

Like most compact thrillers, “Not Safe for Work” has its slow-burn first act before the danger makes itself known. This is when the film’s cutest scenes happen. Tom, our protagonist, has an office romance with Anna, a secretary. A scene of the two flirting in the filling department, or the other small ways they tease each other throughout the day, are pretty damn cute. I also like the friendship he forms with Roger, a family man working late in the office. The scene where the killer forces Roger to say goodbye to his wife and kids over the phone is a strong one.

Starring as Tom is Max Minghella, who I remember most prominently remember as the awkward lead in “Art School Confidential.” Minghella is much more appealing here then he was in that film. He brings a slight snarkiness to the part that is likable. Moreover, Minghella strikes the viewer as an Everyman for our modern corporate age. He uses humor to diffuse the tension he feels throughout the day, his job always at risk despite working hard for it. His principals and willingness to stand up for what he thinks is right also makes him a less worth following. Minghella is also believable when playing up the characters’ resourcefulness, which comes in handy during the movie’s second half.

However, “Not Safe for Work” is largely dominated by one performance. J. J. Felid plays the nameless killer. Felid, who previously appeared as Union Jack in “Captain America,” is highly entertaining as the remorseless executioner. He goes about murdering the people in his way without sweating about it. He’s very casual while shooting a witness or preparing to strangle a man to death. Yet his personality isn’t as cold as his actions. It’s clear, from the tricks he employs in his attempt to draw the hero out, that he’s a charming and intelligent guy. Felid expertly deploys a chilly charm as this professional murderer and might be the most entertaining thing about the film.

Being a relatively small scale story, “Not Safe for Work” is largely dominated by these two performances. However, there’s one or two other actors here that stick out. Christian Clemenson, best known for memorable parts on TV shows like “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” and “Boston Legal,” plays Tom’s boss. Clemenson is well cast as a duplicitous executive, self-serving and glad-handing, who gets increasingly sweaty and nervous as the killer closes in. Eloise Mumford is also cute and charming as the love interest, sharing an amusing chemistry with Minghella.

“Not Safe for Work” ultimately feels like a minor work. What contributes to that is its short run time. The film is all of 74 minutes long and that includes the opening and closing credits. It’s quite unusual for a studio film these day to run that short but it works in “Not Safe for Work’s” benefits, as it gets the audience in and out in a Speedy fashion. Though it doesn’t dissuade the feeling that this was designed for television, as it could’ve been an hour long episode of an anthology series with a little trimming. The film does end by teasing a sequel, which is not an usual move for Blumhouse but comes off as very optimistic considering what happened to this particular movie.

Honestly, if “Not Safe for Work” was shelved because of its perceived quality, I don’t think that’s fair. The film is certainly better than some other Blumhouse Productions, like “Truth or Dare,” that were deemed worthy of a theatrical release. It is a deeply unimportant work and pretty forgettable, with a fairly flat visual presentation. But, as long as it’s playing, I found it to be a decently entertaining bit of thrilling fluff. It’s interesting to see Johnston try out a style so different from his usual work and it’s kind of a bummer that it ended up not working out for him. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2011)

10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Once again, we must consider the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how it was much harder than it looked. The public had embraced Iron Man but, as the studio marched towards “The Avengers,” there was no guarantee they would similarly embrace Marvel's other superheroes. Captain America, in particular, would have been an easy character to screw up. Some were fearful about whether the film would be a work of jingostic American propaganda. Marvel was clearly nervous about selling a movie with “America” in the title abroad, giving the movie the unwieldy subtitle of “The First Avenger.” (Internationally, that was the main title, with the character's name as the subtitle.) In order to guide the most patriotic of Marvel's hero, the House of Ideas would recruit Joe Johnston, clearly realizing that the retro setting and gee shucks heroism of “The Rocketeer” was a good fit for the Star-Spangled Avenger.

The year is 1942 and World War II rages in Europe. Nazi Germany's deep science unit, Hydra, is led by Johann Schmit, a madman who has used an experimental serum to turn himself into a superhuman. Schmit has recently recovered an ancient artifact of massive power and intends on using it to destroy all sides of the war. In the streets of Brooklyn, Steve Rogers doesn't know about any of that. He's a sickly, skinny orphan who desperately wants to enlist because he hates bullies and wants to fight against tyranny. Seeing his worthy qualities, the inventor of Schmit's serum chooses Rogers as the next test subject. The scrawny kid is soon transformed into peak human condition, becoming Captain America.

“The First Avenger” understands something very important about Captain America. Despite his name, despite the colors he wears on his uniform, Steve Rogers does not represent America as it is. Instead, he represents the ideas the country is founded on and aspires too. Steve Rogers hates bullies. He rightfully sees the wave of tyranny marching through Europe, all fascism, as a similar thought process. He stands up to assholes when he weighs 90 pounds. Those same principals direct him after his transformation. Captain America is wholesome, even cheesy at times, a hero who does what's right because it's the right thing. This deeply uncynical style of heroism would've been hard to screw up but the film commits to it fully.

A big reason why the audience buys into Cap's old school style of heroism so readily is the actor playing him. When it was announced Chris Evans was playing Captain America, I was skeptical. While he had the look, nothing about the jocko assholes he played in “Not Another Teen Movie” or “Fantastic Four” suggested to me he could be Steve Rogers. Thankfully, I was wrong. Evans isn't just good. He's perfect. Evans is not worried about appearing corny. He embraces the ideas Captain America stands for, playing a deeply ethical soldier who does what's right. Yet these are not easy decisions to make, Evans showing how difficult it can be to stand up for certain principals while the world is going mad around him. Of all the spot-on casting decisions Marvel made when putting together their initial slate of films, this is undeniably my favorite. Evans brings some humor to the role too, delivering a couple of really good zingers about being a captain or punching out Hitler.

While an ideally cast leading man and a certain understanding of its hero are important, “Captain America: The First Avenger” also works because it's a tightly plotted adventure. Like the best film of Marvel's early phases, the film has an extremely clean plot construction. The perfectly balanced first act, showing Steve working through basic training and being chosen to to become Captain America, leads to an action pack middle chapter. After proving his heroism with the prison camp rescue, the film graduates towards a series of action-packed montages. It's all leading towards the final showdown between Cap and the Red Skull. It flows, beautifully, drawing the audience in and not letting go until its given us as much entertainment as possible. This is how popcorn cinema is suppose to work.

As an action movie, “Captain America” is also pretty damn good. Johnston's skill for organizing nostalgia-flavored action sequences have only grown since “The Rocketeer.” The foot chase through New York, which helpfully demonstrates Rogers' newly granted abilities, gets things off on a high note. That middle-of-the-film montage, showing Captain and the Howling Commandos' various adventures from the war, is a joyful blast of comic book action. The rescue of the prisoners is another highlight, concluding with a rocket that flies via spinning turbines. In fact, “The First Avenger” has a delightful love of old-time-y gadgetry. Aside from Cap's boomerang shield, there's a zipline onto a Hydra bullet train, a jet-powered motorcycle with a number of built-in extra weapons, and laser guns that shoot incinerating plasma blasts.

Johnston is clearly in love with the retro aesthetic. The film delights in the pricey production design the 1940s setting allows. Such as the world's fair Steve and Bucky visit in New York, the classic cars driven by heroes and villains alike, and the period accurate costumes. (Which includes both a comic accurate version of Captain America's costume and the more tactical version he wears for most of the film.) The cinematography matches the beauty of the production design. Teaming with Shelly Johnson again, Johnston creates another beautiful film. There are a number of shots here that look as bold and as impressive as comic book splash pages. Such as Cap and the Red Skull facing each other down on different sides of an explosion, Bucky plummeting towards an icy river, or a classic car speeding towards a flying wing.

An underrated element of “The First Avenger” that I don't hear people praising nearly enough is Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. If Chris Evans is perfect as Cap, Weaving is nearly as good as his diametric opposite. Weaving adopts a fantastically sleazy German accent, supposedly based on Werner Herzog. While the character certainly gets his share of delightfully villainous moments, such as executing unworthy henchmen or making grand speeches to his loyal followers, Weaving doesn't really play Schmit like a grand supervillain. Instead, he's a power-hungry tactician perfectly confident in his own superiority. (Weaving's continued disinterest in returning to the part suggests he wasn't a fan himself or, perhaps, he just disliked the make-up.)

The love interests in Marvel films can sometimes feel perfunctory, an element included because it's expected, not because it's needed. However, “The First Avenger” definitely has one of Marvel's better love stories. Because Steve is such a wholesome guy, his pursuit of Peggy Carter is different than your usual romance B-story. Peggy is immediately attracted to him – how could she not be? – but a mixture of Steve's social awkwardness and his personal honor mostly keeps their love unrequited. Yet the feelings that come pouring out before he crashes the Hydra flying wing into the Arctic could not be more earned. Hayley Atwell pairs old Hollywood beauty with a steely toughness, always maintaining an incredible sense of class no matter what she's doing.

The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Changing Bucky from Cap's child soldier sidekick to his best bro was a smart decision. While distinct from what Evans is doing, Sebastian Stan does seem like the kind rough-and-tumble guy a young Steve Rogers would look up too. Dominic Cooper has a cattiness that works really well for a 1940s playboy genius inventor like Howard Stark. Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the film's funniest dialogue as Colonel Philips, the stuffy but sarcastic authority figure overseeing many of the adventures. Getting the Howling Commandos into a “Captain America” movie was a pretty great idea too. A perfectly cast Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan and an amusingly acerbic Kennith Choi as Jim Morita are my favorite of that team.

Because I really care about these things, as “Captain America's” release date drew closer, I hoped Marvel got a pretty decent score together for this one. As soon as I saw Alan Silvestri was composing the score, I knew we'd be just fine. Yes, Silvestri's score is fantastic. He composed an ideal main theme for Cap, a series of brassy and slowly rising notes that read as heroic, patriotic, inspiring, and just the tiniest bit forlorn. All the emotions you'd want associate with this character. Most delightfully, and totally unexpected, was the musical number included in the film. Marvel even got experienced Disney song writer Alan Menken to composed a Cole Porter-esque showtune about the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. Insanely catchy, with lyrics and melody that perfectly evoke the period, the song-and-dance montage is another fantastic scene in the film.

Though the films were not quite as interconnected as they are now, by this point Marvel already knew each individual movie also functioned as a stepping stone towards an even bigger event film. “Captain America” came out the summer before “The Avengers.” It's such a prequel to the crossover film that, aside from “Avenger” being in its subtitle, the movie actually ends with a trailer for the next part. While this feels somewhat awkward, the film's period setting allow its hint at a larger universe to feel fairly natural. We do not know that the Cosmic Cube the Red Skull powers Hydra with is an Infinity Stone at this point and we don't need to know that. On paper, the concluding scene that brings Steve into the modern age might read like a gimmicky sequel hook. And it almost is, if it wasn't for Evans' pitch perfect delivery of the last line, which adds an element of grace and melancholy to the film's final scene.

In the overall ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most people place the first “Captain America” pretty low on the list. Many seem to see it as a forgettable origin story, a necessary step on the way towards the more exciting “Avengers” adventures. I suppose a lot of folks only find Cap interesting as a contrast to the modern world, which is why so many seem to prefer the sequel. But, if you're like me and have a taste for retro-leaning adventure stories, you probably love this movie too. Directing a film that is very much a gear in a far larger corporate machine might seem thankless. “Captain America: The First Avenger” probably would've been a hit regardless of who made it. Yet Joe Johnston's particular grasp on this kind of heroics really helped sell the final film, resulting in what is still one of my favorite Marvel movies. [Grade: A]

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2010)

9. The Wolfman

Three times in the last ten years, Universal Studios has attempted to reboot their pantheon of classic monsters. The previous two attempts, in 2014 and 2017, took the form of big budget action spectacles intended to launch cinematic universes. (This is after “Van Helsing” tried something similar in 2004.) The studio is currently preparing a fourth attempt. These latest remakes will be low-budget horror movies, the approach Universal should've been taking all along. Because the Universal Monsters are immensely important characters and movies to me, I have been unnaturally invested in all these reboots. The first of these attempt the studio made to retrofit their monsters for modern tastes was a big budget remake of “The Wolfman” in 2010.

Conceptually, a new "Wolfman" was a great idea. It's one of the few monsters Universal created whole cloth, without adapting a public domain novel. As the film was nearly seventy years old at the time, there was certainly plenty of room for expansion and updated special effects. It quickly became a passion project of Benicio del Toro, who is apparently a great fan of the original. Rick Baker, saint of the monster kids and practical effects god, also insisted on doing the make-up. Initially, music video auteur Mark Romanek was attached as director. After he left though, it seemed “The Wolfman” became cursed. A number of directors rotated through the project, from sensible choices like Frank Darabont and Bill Condon, to utterly baffling names like Brett Ratner. Finally, Joe Johnston signed on weeks before production was scheduled to begin. The studio meddled, countless reshoots followed, the budget ballooned. After numerous delays, “The Wolfman” was dumped into theaters in February. Critics dismissed it. Audiences ignored it. As a seasoned Universal Monster fan, however, I certainly have many thoughts about the remake.

In 1891, Ben Talbot is torn apart in the night by a mysterious beast. His brother, traveling actor Lawrence, is summoned back to Talbot Hall in the Welsh countryside. Since the death of their mother when he was a boy, Lawrence has always had a tense relationship with his father, Sir John. Also waiting at the hall is Gwen, Ben's beautiful finance. When investigating what killed his brother, Lawrence is in a gypsy camp just as the beast attacks. He is bitten. Soon, Talbot finds he is the latest inherent of a family curse. For when the moon is full and bright in the sky, he becomes a terrifying beast, half man, half wolf.

Out of the many films I've seen, 2010's “The Wolfman” remains one of the most frustrating for me. Simply put, this “Wolfman” was so nearly a perfect remake. It makes so many good expansions on the original. Explicitly setting the story in Victorian times was a great idea, alighting the Wolfman with the other classic monsters. (And also getting around the vague use of time and place in the Universal films.) “Larry” Talbot, the lovable oaf that Lon Chaney Jr. played in 1941, becomes Lawrence Talbot, a Shakespearean actor carrying around a life of pain. Yet despite the changes the movie makes, it's spirit and heart remains faithful to the original. It takes the original classic and adds a beefy modern budget, along with a more mature screenplay.

A big element of that maturation is addressing much of the hidden subtext of the original. The Wolfman transformation, a likable guy becoming a murderous beast at night, has always been a metaphor for alcoholism. The remake makes Lawrence explicitly an alcohol, someone who is rarely seen without a drink in his hand. Smartly, the film doesn't foreground this too much, to the point that you can miss it if you aren't looking for it. Like all of the classic monsters, the Wolfman is also an outsider to polite society. The film directly links this with the racial persecution the local gypsies face, the same people initially fingered for the deaths. His mother was Romani and Lawrence carries her appearance. (This explains what the rather brown Benicio del Toro is doing in 1890s Europe.) It can't be a mistake that the actual perpetrator of these crimes is a wealthy white man.

More than anything else, what Johnston's “The Wolfman” gets so very right is the visuals. After peppering an occasional bit of gothic atmosphere throughout many of his other films, Johnston gets to make a full-on horror movie and clearly relishes it. The natural habitat of a werewolf is present: The fog-strewn moors of the English countryside, the moonlight shining through the black trees to cast sinister shadows all around. Yet the other gothic trademarks, such as the long and cold halls of ornate Talbot Hall, are also present. When the story relocates to London, there's even a vintage steam engine rolling down the blue-black coddle stone streets. It looks and feels exactly like how a modern day Universal Monster movie should look and feel.

The original “Wolfman” already had some Daddy issues. The reason Larry was returning home was because his father's favored son died. In the original, this was largely an excuse for the very American Lon Chaney Jr. to be in the Welsh setting with Claude Rains playing his dad. The remake, meanwhile, makes the tension between father and son the main driving force behind the story. In some ways, this choice is really interesting. Before his internal monsterhood expresses itself as a terrible transformation, Talbot is an outsider in his own home. The eventual change into a wolf has its root in a traumatic childhood, with the death of his mother, the loving and caring parent. It seems somewhat inevitable that his father would quickly be revealed as responsible for that death, making the cause of his childhood pain and his hairy curse one and the same.

It's a smart and logical progression of the original film's themes. Yet, in other ways, this change is quite frustrating for me. Claude Rains' Sir John Talbot looked into his son's eyes and saw only disappointment. When he clubs the wolfman Larry Talbot to death at the end, it's a tragedy. In the remake, Sir John is also a werewolf, the one who infected his son with the curse. This forms into a bloody, fangs-barred rivalry. Father makes plans to destroy his son, largely because his heart has rotten into vindictiveness and because he doesn't want his would-be daughter-in-law to leave Talbot Hall. Realizing Sir John killed his mother, son makes plans to destroy the father. So the gothic tragedy of the original is morphed into a harder, nastier game of escalating carnage in the remake. This is not the direction I would've taken.

However, when focused on scenes of werewolf mayhem, “The Wolfman” frequently works fantastically. This is an R-rated horror movie that is unapologetic about its gore. The first night Lawrence transforms, he goes on a gruesome rampage. He tears arms out of their sockets. Faces are slashed to ribbons. Guts are yanked opened. One especially memorable moment has him tearing a head off easily with a single swipe of his hand. It's frenziedly directed, an intense blast of nastiness. The movie never really tops that moment, though Lawrence's rampage through London – which has him tearing a guy's liver out and slashing his was through the aforementioned steam engine – comes pretty damn close.

Rick Baker's immediate involvement with a new version of “The Wolfman” couldn't have made more sense. His love of the classic monsters is what inspired Baker to become the leading practical make-up effects man in Hollywood. Naturally, Baker's version of the Wolfman is fantastic. It's a beautiful update of the original Jack Pierce make-up, looking more canine without sacrificing the classic silhouette. It is the iconic werewolf but updated with all the innovations of modern day effects work. Baker crafted this monster with love and it shows. He would rightfully win his seventh Academy Award for his efforts.

Sadly, Baker's work only makes up some of the creature effects in the film. All the transformation sequences utilize CGI... Mediocre CGI. Del Toro's fingers and face twisting out of place and looks cartoonish, distracting from the wonderful make-up that is in the film. The worst example of the film's cheesy CGI are appearances from a computer-generated bear and elk, neither of which look even remotely real. This is, of course, another causality of the film's fractured production. Johnston's late entrance onto the project, and the multiple reshoots, meant there was no time for costly practical transformation scenes.

The unconvincing and gratuitous CGI is far from the only obvious sign of studio meddling and reshoots in the movie. In fact, it's very obvious that Universal big wigs wanted “The Wolfman” to be a very different type of horror movie than what was originally intended. Rather obnoxious jump-scares are inserted throughout the film. At least two times, the snarling face of a werewolf leaps into frame suddenly and loudly. What bugs me even more than these are bizarre montages, in which Lawrence's memories morph in odd ways. Moments like this feel hopelessly over-produced, the result of a group of executives trying to make a scary movie but totally cluelessly about what is frightening.

How clueless were the Universal boss men who oversaw the film's production? One of the directives for the re-shoots were to make the movie more like the “Underworld” series. I guess those were the only movies with werewolves in them that the producers had seen. And, okay, they made money, despite being terrible. Anyway, this odious order is most evident in the film's inexplicably action-packed climax. Once Lawrence returns to Talbot Hall, he has a showdown with his werewolf father. What follows is a ridiculously over-the-top monster fight. The creatures are suddenly leaping around the walls and kicking each other through the air. Listen, I love silly monster fights but this shit could not be more out of place here.

When I saw “The Wolfman” in theaters, I was a little disappointed in Benicio del Toro's performance. On paper, it seems like ideal casting. Del Toro has a similar quality to Lon Chaney, able to summon an incredible ferocity but with an inner sadness in his eyes, a sad-sack quality to his face. (And they've both played simpleton man-children.)  Yet Del Toro plays Lawrence in a more reserved way. He is, basically, an awkward theater nerd that uses alcohol to repress the trauma swirling inside him. Later, Del Toro swings from this muted approach to wild screaming and shouting, which comes off as rather over-the-top. Still, it is a better performance than what I initially thought. The inconsistency in del Toro's acting seen in the final film may be another result of the reshoots.

Another smart decision made for the remake is making the romance a bigger part of the story. In the original, Lon Chaney becomes attracted to Evelyn Anker's Gwen after spying on her through her bedroom window via telescope. Though the two performers had chemistry, it was a rather uncomfortable basis for a romance. The remake makes Gwen the finance of Lawrence's dead brother. The two feel an immediate connection but are reluctant to act on it, out of respect for the dead. Their feelings for each other show through in scenes involving skipping stones or in pensive glances across rooms. Emily Blunt is well-cast in the part and the classical Beauty and the Beast images invoked near the very end of the film are among its best.

The other big marquee name in the film was Anthony Hopkins as Sir John. Hopkins, in some ways, was ideally cast. Few people can make ominous proclamations sound as chilling and effective as him. His reaction to the townsfolk or finding his son after his first rampage make the best use of Hopkins' abilities. A scene where Hopkins explains the toll the death of Lawrence's mother took on him is even rather frightening. However, eventually, Hopkins slides into an unseemly hamminess. Another obvious reshoot has him explaining his origins and plans to Lawrence, a scene that Hopkins plays like a comic book supervillain. A better supporting player is Hugo Weaving as the Scotland yard investigator sent to look into the killings. Though the part adds little to the film, Weaving brings his typical amount of wit and grace to the role.

After seeing “The Wolfman” in theaters, I remember leaving feeling very frustrated. It was so obvious to me that a better version of this film existed at some point in the editing room, in-between all the reshoots and studio tinkering. When an unrated director's cut was announced for the DVD, I was hopeful that might be it. The director's cut is better than the theatrical version. The first act is much longer, giving us more insight into Lawrence's personality before he transforms, which doesn't happen until almost an hour into the movie. (It also reinstates the 1940s Universal Studios logo and a wonderful cameo from Max von Sydow.) Sadly, the director's cut doesn't fix any of the story problems in the film and includes all the obvious re-shoots. It would seem the ideal version of this movie existed probably in the scripting stage, not the editing room. I still dream of cutting my own version of the movie though.

Ultimately, “The Wolfman” would flop at the box office and receive tepid at best reviews. The president of Universal even referred to the remake as one of the worst movies the studio has ever made, which is blatantly not true. It's a film I still feel very torn on. There are things about this film I love and respect. You can tell Joe Johnston did a good job directing it. The cast is decent, the production design and make-up is fantastic. It is, sometimes, an effectively nasty horror film. Yet the film is also a mess, a clear victim of wrong-headed studio executives. It's still a much better Universal Monster movie than the next two attempts the studio made to reboot the monsters. [Grade: B]

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2004)

8. Hidalgo

I have no evidence to support this but I highly suspect that Joe Johnston has wanted to make a western his entire career. The western is certainly a genre that lines up with his love of pulp adventures, two-fisted action, and boyish enthusiasm. Of course, westerns aren't made as often these days as they once were and rarely as populist entertainment. Yet, around 2003, Disney decided to make a big budget adaptation of the adventures of turn-of-the-century trick rider and cowboy Frank Hopkins... Or, rather, his entirely fabricated stories about his own great deeds. Considering his history making old school-style adventure stories for the studios, it makes sense why Disney picked Johnston to direct “Hidalgo.” (The film would eventually be re-christened a Touchstone release.)

Frank Hopkins, a dispatch rider of the government with Sioux heritage, is a first-hand witness of the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Several years later, still traumatized by these events, Hopkins is working as a trick rider in Wild Bill's Wild West Show. Partnered with his faithful wild mustang Hidalgo, Hopkins is promoted as the world's greatest long-distance rider. A visiting assistant for an Arabian sheikh offers Hopkins a chance to prove this boast. Frank and Hidalgo are invited to compete in the Ocean of Fire, a three thousand mile endurance race across the harshest parts of the Najd desert. Frank and Hidalgo will not only have to face the challenges of the race but also their statuses as outsiders in a strange land.

By giving the horse top billing, “Hidalgo” announces what kind of story it is. This is a film all about the special bond between a man and his horse. The titular mustang is not just any sort of pony. Early on, he drags an intoxicated Frank to his feet. The horse's whinnies and snorts are given extra doses of personality. More than once, Frank is thrusts into action specifically to protect or defend his horse. The film's final act has Frank giving his faithful steed its freedom and ensuring the survival of the wild Mustang breed. Due to this bond, the most stirring and successful scenes in “Hidalgo” are those that revolve around the hero riding like the wind on horseback. Such as the genuinely exciting climatic race to the finish.

Yet “Hidalgo” belongs to another, very old cinematic tradition. The film undeniably has a “Mighty Whitey” storyline. It's unavoidable. A white American guy goes to a foreign country, impresses or infuriates many of the native people, and manages to beat them at their own contest. He befriends a slave (as if an American has any room to talk on that subject) and humbles the Iranian opposition. He earns the love of an Arabian princess and grabs the respect of her Sheikh father. “Lawrence of Arabia” is an identifiable influence and the film admits as much, by casting Omar Sharif in a prominent supporting role.

And it's obvious that “Hidalgo” is not mean-spirited about this. The film desperately wants to be a multicultural story about sharing identities. The Sheikh, Frank discovers, is a huge lover of western dime novels. He even uses his knowledge of wild west legends to win some favor with the man. The romance he forms with the princess is one based in mutual respect, the two helping each other out when they need it. During the hardest part of the race, Frank pauses to save a rival from drowning in mud. Frank's Native American heritage comes up repeatedly, painting him as a hero that is the result of merging cultures. The film's heart definitely seems to be in the right place...

But there's a problem. “Hidalgo” was released in 2004, not long after American forces invaded Iraq. So its story of a white, American hero traveling to this exact same country can't help but have unfortunate connotations. In general, the film portrays Middle Eastern culture in a mildly lurid light. The film's primary villain is an Islamic extremist, who repeatedly refers to Hopkins as an infidel. At one point, our cowboy hero is tied up by the Sheikh and threatened with castration... For the crime of being in the same tent as the princess. Not to mention the buffoonish Arabic sidekick Frank is given upon joining the race. If this was a much older film, such exoticism and casual Islamophobia could be dismissed as unpleasant but typical of the genre. By being released when it was, it gives “Hidalgo” some uncomfortable subtext. (Screenwriter John Fusco – whose other credits include the “Young Guns” movies and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” so horse movies are kind of his thing – claims no deeper political meaning was intended.)

The film's treatment of Native Americans, sadly, isn't much better. It's very odd that “Hidalgo,” a light-hearted adventure movie, attempts to grapple with the traumatic weight of the massacre of the American Indian. That it chooses to tell this story through a white man's eyes is even weirder. The real Frank Hopkins claimed Lakota ancestry which, like everything else that came out of his mouth, was bullshit. The film runs with this, having Hopkins communicate with a sad, surviving Indian in the wild west show. (A performer that is booed and has stuff thrown at him every night.) At the end, once again, it falls on the white man to save the people of color. Most baffling is a sequence where a near-death Frank, in the Iranian desert, has a vision of a Sioux spirit dance. Because why not throw a little Magical Indian mysticism into the stew too?

As very, very shaky as the film's politics potentially are, “Hidalgo” is still a highly entertaining adventure movie. In fact, it features some wonderfully orchestrated action sequences. Which is unsurprising, I suppose, considering Johnston's action credentials. A swordfight with desert bandits on a hot Middle Eastern night, which occurs while Hopkins is tied up and features a decapitated head plopping to the sands, feels like the swashbuckling sequence Johnston has waited his whole career to make. A race out of a desert city – which includes horseback riding, shoot-outs, racing, and bursting through fences – is another highlight. Fight scenes involving spears or taking place on the cracked, flat desert landscapes are all a wonder to look at.

In a general, “Hidalgo” is easily one of Johnston's prettiest movies. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson, returning from “Jurassic Park III,” creates many high contrast, painterly images. Such as an early dream sequence, prominently featuring Wild Bill and a black-and-gray crowd. Naturally, the windblown dunes and punishing heat of the Middle East desert presents many opportunities for gorgeous images of nature at its harshest. If its not the aforementioned muddy plains or the dusty camps, the film certainly captures the stoic beauty of the region. Johnston's camera gets right into the action scenes and he deploys that cool trick of the hero punching directly into the camera again.

And all of the neat theatricality of the action scenes come crashing down in one supremely silly moment that, for whatever reason, was on most of the movie posters. As you'd expect from a movie about a harsh horse race through the desert, there's a sandstorm sequence. Presumably because it would've been prohibitively expensive and technically arduous to do so for real, CGI is used to create the sandstorm. And, it almost goes without saying, the scene has not aged well. The sight of the hero racing away from a giant CGI blob of sandy doom is neither exciting nor tense. It just looks goofy and bad. The film is lovably low-tech in many ways, causing this scene to stick out like a big, ugly, sore thumb. (Though, credit where its due, this CGI sandstorm does look slightly less rubbery and awful than the CGI sandstorm in “The Scorpion King,” released two years earlier.)

“Hidalgo's” status as throw-back entertainment might make its exact era hard to nail down. However, one element cements the film to 2004. This movie was made during the short-lived period, post-”Lord of the Rings,” when Hollywood wanted to make independent cinema mainstay and character actor Viggo Mortensen into an A-list action hero. While Viggo seems like a weird choice for a western, he's actually pretty good as Hopkins. He has fun clowning around with the horse during his intoxicated scenes. He brings a respectable gravity to the scenes reflecting on the characters American Indian history. As for why Viggo would choose to star in a movie like this, considering his other roles as Aragorn and Alatriste, I'm guessing he's a fan of old school style adventure stories. He's clearly enjoying himself.

Also having a great time is Omar Sharif as the Sheikh Riyadh. While this is the kind of part Sharif played many times over his career, the stern and seemingly contemptuous foreign leader who eventually grows fond of the white hero, he certainly brings an undeniable flair to the part. Moreover, Sharif has solid chemistry with Mortensen, who is clearly in awe of the legendary actor. Said Yaghmaoui is wonderfully over-the-top as Prince Bin al Reeh, the movie's primary villain. It's exactly the kind of mustache swirling bad guy performance a movie like this needs. Even if their parts are brief, it's also nice to see actors like J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth Berridge, and Malcolm McDowell so perfectly cast as characters like Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and an effete British aristocrat.

Possibly due to the public-at-large's indifference to westerns or a silly controversy surrounding making a movie based so totally on bullshit, “Hidalgo” was another box office disappointment for Johnston. In all honesty, it was kind of a weird project to get the greenlight in the first place, as its been a long time since people have lined up for an old school adventure story like this. Despite that, “Hidalgo” would win some good notices. Once again, Joe Johnston had nicely synthesized the pulpy adventures of another era to make a pleasant action flick. Its somewhat icky politics aside, “Hidalgo” is certainly an enjoyable experience. [Grade: B]

Monday, June 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2001)

7. Jurassic Park III

During the early production of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” for a minute it looked like Steven Spielberg might not direct the sequel. During this brief time, Joe Johnston expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. When Spielberg inevitably took over the director’s chair, Steve made Johnston the promise that, if a third trip to Jurassic Park happened, he’d get the gig. Sure enough, when production started moving on “Jurassic Park III,” Johnston directed it. The film had a troubled shoot. The original script was abandoned weeks before filming began, forcing a new story to be cooked up quickly. Much of the film was shot without a final script. “Jurassic Park III” is a love-it or hate-it affair for fans, representing either the franchise’s nadir or a goofy popcorn muncher.

In the years since the original “Jurassic Park,” Alan Grant has grown a little bitter. He finds it difficult to muster enthusiasm for dinosaurs after almost being eaten by one. Meanwhile, the existence of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna – the second island explored in “The Lost World” – is well-known. In hopes of getting close to it while jet-skiing, a teenage boy and his guide disappears on the island. The boys’ divorced parents tricks Grant into taking them back to the island. Soon, they are stranded on Site B and being pursued by another batch of killer dinosaurs.

“Jurassic Park III” has a wildly different tone then either of the previous two “Jurassic Park” movies. Both features had plenty of humor in it. However, thrills and awesome sights took precedence. Part three, meanwhile, is an intentionally goofy flick. Early on, Grant has a day-dream about a raptor speaking with a human’s voice. The heroes have to dig a satellite phone out of a pile of dino scat. An attempt to contact Dr. Stattler with said phone is interrupted when her toddler son is distracted by Barney the Dinosaur playing on the TV. Part three has a light-hearted, goofy tone. While the first two films felt like major events, the third feels like a silly B-movie, with more absurd action, broader characters, and sillier comic relief.

The biggest example of “Jurassic Park III’s” B-movie roots is its brand new antagonist. Minutes after arriving on the island, a human by-stander is picked off by a spinosaurus. The spinosaurus is, indeed, the biggest theropod predator thus discovered. However, paleontologist theorize that it mostly ate fish. “Jurassic Park III’s” spinosaurus, meanwhile, is a determined killer that spends the entire movie chasing the heroes. A genuinely thrilling sequence has it rolling the fusillade of the airplane around, trying to get at the prey inside. Later, it drags the cage the humans are hiding inside into the water, another thrilling sequence. It smashes through a fence in pursuit of its queries and emerges from the waves in order to get at them. So the dinosaurs have evolved from partially plausible predators to movie monsters, pursuing their prey at all cost.

In order to establish that the spinosaurus is the biggest bad-ass around, the creature duels – and quickly dispatches – the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While I am fine with the spinosaurus’ goofery throughout the film, this is a bridge too far. We get it, movie. This new dinosaur is not to be fucked with. Sloppy writing like this is far from the only indication that this was a hastily written production. The lies that Kirby tells Grant, that he swallows without further evidence, seems unlikely. The sudden reappearance of a whistle mimicking the velociraptor’s cries is a blatant Chekov’s gun, set up early in the film. The resolution features a sudden, mostly unexplained rescue by the Navy. (Which was apparently inserted at the insistence of the Department of Defense.) So, yes, it is very evident that this movie didn't have an ending when filming began.

As ridiculous as the stuff involving the spinosaurus is, it’s actually not the silliest dinosaur related stuff in “JP3.” Does anyone else remember that episode of “The Critic” were they joked about the raptors getting smarter in the “Jurassic Park” sequels? In this one, they actually do get smarter. They yap at each other, communicating via shrieks and yelps. One scene has a velociraptor climbing a fence, in order to get at the humans on the other side. The most absurd moment is when the dinosaurs actually set a complex trap, snapping the bait human’s neck afterwards. Once again, this strains believablity, pushing the movie out of the realm of serious sci-fi/fantasy into goofy exploitation antics. I’m not sure how to feel about the lightly feathered new designs either, which strike an uneven balance between the scientific consensus of feathered dinosaurs and the Hollywood-preferred style of naked dinosaurs.

I’m not saying that “Jurassic Park III” isn’t thrilling. It’s actually full of fun, entertaining stuff. The raptors chase the family through a research facility, pretending to be hiding inside a glass tube. One genuinely clever moment is the reveal that the teenage boy has successfully been surviving on the island, when he tosses smoke grenades at the dinosaurs. Most importantly, “Jurassic Park III” finally devotes a set piece to the pteradons. While diving through a valley, the winged reptiles swoop in, attacking and biting. It’s probably the most genuinely thrilling sequence in the film. As a life-long pterodactyl fan, it’s just really, really cool to finally see them realized on-screen. (Another fan favorite dino, the ankylosaurs, also have a much more minor appearance.)

Joe Johnston’s direction matches the movie’s campy tone. “Jurassic Park III” was made before the revival of 3-D. At times, however, it feels like it was made for the format. Dinosaurs repeatedly leap towards the camera, snapping their jaws in the air. Johnston actually seems obsessed with shoving the dinosaur’s faces, along with swinging skulls and airplane wings, into the audience’s faces. However, Johnston does a good job of imitating Spielberg’s style. One of the few times the film slows down involves the humans floating on a boat and seeing a herd of plant-eaters on the shore. The camera soaks in the sight of the dinosaurs, their grandeur and sheer size. It’s a nice, quiet moment, even sort of touching.

Likewise, the special effects in “JP3” are fantastic. Well, let me clarify. The practical effects are phenomenal. The spinosaur is brought to life by a massive puppet that can snap its jaws and swivel its head with lightening speed. The velociraptors have especially expressive faces, tilting their heads and squinting their eyes. There’s even a giant probe pterodactyl head used at one point. All of this stuff, courtesy of Stan Winston Studios, is great. The movie’s CGI, on the other hand, hasn’t aged as well. It doesn’t make any sense to me that the CGI in 1994’s original “Jurassic Park” holds up so well but the digital effects in the sequels are increasingly phony looking. When scene, where Alan Grant is diving below the CGI spinosaurus’ tail, is especially fake looking.

The third entry in the series seems to continues “The Lost World’s” interest in family. At the film’s beginning, Paul Kirby and Amanda Kirby are nearly divorced. Their relationship is cracking apart, not helped by Paul’s milquetoast attitudes. Their quest to find their son, however, brings them back together. The parents are cheerfully reunited with Eric. After finding their son, they reflect on why their relationship failed. After Amanda worries that Paul may have been eaten by the spinosaur, she cries out for him. As in part two, the movie attempts to awkwardly tie the dinosaurs in with the human subplot. The velociraptors’ pursuing their stolen eggs mirrors the Kirbys searching for their lost son. It doesn’t add much depth to the film.

Something that truly differentiates “Jurassic Park III” from “The Lost World” is the presence of Sam Neill. Absent last time, it is nice to have Dr. Grant back. The character is given a fairly routine character arc. Considering the events of the first film, Grant has gone from being a lover of dinosaurs to despising them. (His ascertain that it's hard to like dinosaurs after one tries to eat you seems fair.) By the end of the film, after first-hand witnessing the intelligence and grace of these animals, that love is renewed. It's hard to tell how invested in the material Neill is. He nods and tells jokes throughout, seemingly having a good time. Yet, at other moments, he seems more like a cog in a massive machine, just going through the motions.

Dr. Grant's arc is the only routine piece of writing in the film. At the start of the film, Paul and Amanda Kirby are on the verge of divorce. Their relationship is straining and the disappearance of their son has pushed things even further to the breaking point. However, throughout this wild and dangerous adventure, they are reminded of why they care about each other again, their love renewed. If you've ever seen any disaster movie, you may recognize this extremely common concept. The cast, however, goes a long way towards patching over the routine writing. William H. Macy is playing an extremely William H. Macy type, a slightly pathetic guy that has lied about how important he is. Macy is, of course, excellent at embodying this type of role. Tea Leoni is similarly appealing as Amanda, especially once she's reunited with her son and her Mama Bear instincts kick in.

“Jurassic Park III” has the good sense to get out before we can think about it too much. Compared to the epic two hour-plus run times of the previous films, this one runs a slim 97 minutes.  Audiences clearly didn't mind the shorter run time. Despite largely negative reviews, “Jurassic Park III” grossed over 300 million dollars at the box office, becoming the ninth highest grossing film of the year. This was about half what “The Lost World” made, which about half of the original. That's probably why Universal rebooted the franchise a decade later. “Jurassic Park III” is silly as hell, and doesn’t compare much to the original, but it is an entertaining flick. Despite its blockbuster budget and cutting edge special effects, the heart of a slick, goofy B-movie beats inside it. And that’s okay. [Grade: B]

Friday, June 21, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (1999) Part 2

6. The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Spring Break Adventure

Following the release of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the Indiana Jones franchise went on a lengthy break. In order to keep interest in the character and his adventures going in-between films, George Lucas had an idea for a television series. Lucas decided to spin the show out of the opening sequence of “Last Crusade,” which focused on a teenage Indy's first adventure.  “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” would find its television home on ABC, starting in 1992. Lucas envisioned the show not just as entertainment but as education, so action-oriented episodes focused on teenage Indiana were followed by more informative episodes centered on a ten year old Indy. In both time periods, the future archaeologist would encounter many well-known figures and participate in historical events. Perhaps because of that educational focus, the series didn't attract the expected viewership. Combined with abnormally high production values, this would result in “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” being canceled after two short seasons.

This, however, was not the end of the series. Four television films would air on the Family Channel in-between 1994 and 1996. In 1999, the series would be released on home video. Because George Lucas just has to do everything his own odd way, the series would not receive a standard, episode-to-episode VHS release. Instead, the show would be edited into a set of twenty-two feature films. Each movie would be made up of material from two separate episodes. The framing sequences featuring a 93-year old Indiana in the modern day (Along with his now non-canon daughter and grandchildren) would be excised from these releases. A small amount of new footage would be shot to link the different segments. This format would be maintained with the eventual DVD release, which also added extensive historical documentaries to further nail home the show's status as edu-tainment.

Considering Joe Johnston got his start working on the special effects for “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it's not surprising that he would also work on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” In-between making “The Rocketeer” and “The Pagemaster,” he would direct the sixth episode of the second season, “Princeton, February 1916.” This episode would comprise the first half of the sixth “Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” movie, “Spring Break Adventure.” So when that compilation film hit VHS in 1999, it would technically become Johnston's sixth feature film.

As the title indicates, the first segment takes place in 1916 in Princeton, New Jersey, when Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr. was sixteen years old. He is less preoccupied with adventuring and more interested in his girlfriend Nancy, daughter of novelist Edward Stratemeyer. Indy hopes to take Nancy to prom in her dad's car, a fancy Bugatti. This plan is cut short when the car's generator dies and, with Europe locked in World War I, it's impossible to get parts. That's when Indy decides to seek help from Thomas Edison's laboratory. This too goes awry where there's a break-in and an experimental electric motor is stolen. German spies are suspected to have snatched the motor. As Indy and Nancy investigated, they discover the perpetrator is far closer to home.

The second half of the film, “Mexico, March 1916,” has Indiana and his dad heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state that was only a few years old at the time. Henry Jones Jr. and his cousin Frank take a weekend trip across the border in hopes of visiting a bordello. Instead, Indiana gets abducted by Pancho Villa's army when they raid the town. After befriending a Belgian member of the revolution, Indy's life is sparred. He even joins up with Villa's cause but quickly becomes disillusioned with it. Along the way, he meets an old enemy that he last encountered as just a boy in Egypt six years earlier.

As a longtime Indiana Jones fan, “Spring Break Adventure” is most interesting for the insight it gives us into Indy's mind before he became the two-fisted hero we all know. Amusingly enough, he wasn't too dissimilar to most teenagers. He was largely interested in girls, fast cars, and adrenaline. While sneaking around in a barn with Nancy, he attempts to get closer to her. Later, he heads into Mexico for the express purpose of getting laid. When we are used to seeing the character fight Nazis and chase after magical artifacts, there is a certain degree of novelty in seeing an Indiana Jones most concerned with driving his girlfriend to prom in a fancy car. Of course, Indy's adventure in Mexico molds him into more of the hero we know, as he learns the cost of war. He even picks up a whip, a fedora, and says something belongs in a museum, which puts far too fine a point on his transformation.

However, as has often been reported over the years,“Young Indiana Jones'” determination to be both educational and entertaining is frequently at odds with each other. The show goes to great lengths to insert historical figures into its narrative. During “Princeton, February 1916,” young Mr. Jones just happens to be dating the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, whose “Tom Swift” novels inspire part of the plot. (In case you missed the reference, Edward's daughter is also named Nancy and she sleuths around.) Thomas Edison, his tendency to steal credit, the invention of an electric car, and the rivalry with the oil industry are also integrated into the story. Pancho Villa directly motivates the second episode, which also shoehorns in a cameo from a young General Patton. Indiana Jones sure did bump into a lot of historical figures. And it's a bit distracting.

So how does “Princeton, February 1916” stack up as a Joe Johnston movie? The period setting and all the trappings certainly fit in with his boys' adventure style, which also lines up with the “Tom Swift” references. Despite mostly dealing with Indy's relationship with his girlfriend, the episode does feature some unexpectedly fun action beats. Such as Indiana sneaking into an oil factory and being chased while riding a bicycle, which concludes with a surprisingly graceful dive into a lake. The episode wraps up with fist fights, accusation of espionage, and an old-timey car chase. These are fun, decently assembled sequences. The break-in scene also features some of the effectively shadowy imagery we'd see Johnston also use in “The Pagemaster” and “Jumanji.”

The first half of  “Spring Break Adventure” stands alone just fine as its own story. The “Mexico, March 1916” half, directed by Michael Schultz, is less isolated. In fact, this part of the film was originally the second half of “Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal,” the two hour pilot of the entire show. So it includes explicit references and connections to some other story that is otherwise not featured in this film. Apparently, the bad guy Indy runs into in Mexico killed a friend of his back in Egypt six years ago, while also stealing an ancient jackal-headed crown. Even more unusual, this VHS installment was apparently released before that part of the series, which would've made this even more difficult to follow. I don't know who made this decision but it sure feels like the kind of weird shit George Lucas would insist on.

However, “Mexico, March 1916” does make up for its narrative hiccups by being the more action-packed of the two episodes. While riding with Pancho Villa, Jones gets involved in a full-on military conflict. There's lots of shooting, machine gun fire, a daring train heist. It ends with a train crashing into a military encampment and exploding in a massive fireball. The climatic fight with the murderer has an entire building going up in flames. These are big stunts for a TV show from 1992! No wonder the series was too expensive for ABC. It's definitely entertaining to watch though. Schultz proves to be a decent action director, even if Indy himself seems to play a fairly small part in many of these sequences.

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” would be an early starring role for Sean Patrick Flannery. Flannery has a very loose resemblance to Harrison Ford, explaining why he was probably chosen for the part. Flannery makes for a decent lead. He has a likable, laid-back presence that makes him easy to watch while going on these adventures. Is he believable as a young version of the same character Ford made famous? Not exactly, as this hormonal and inexperienced person seems very different from the Indy we know.  But he probably did a lot of growing up before fighting the Nazis.

Flannery does resemble Indy as we know him more than Lloyd Owen resembles Sean Connery's Dr. Henry Jones Sr. Though Owen definitely nails the uptight part of his personality. The supporting cast includes a few other notable performers. Robyn Lively is cute and displays her own adventurous side as Nancy. Ronny Coutteure is colorful as Remy, the Belgian soldier Indy encounters while in Mexico. Mike Moroff plays Pancho Villa, putting a lot of spirit into Villa's various rousing speeches. I also couldn't help but notice a young Clark Gregg, better known as Agent Coulson, as an engineer working for Thomas Edison.

”Spring Break Adventure” ends with Indiana Jones getting ready to leave for Europe, where he'll become involved in World War I. It sure seems like Mr. Jones' 16th year was non-stop adventure. Watching as a “Indiana Jones” fan, “Spring Break Adventure” is mildly entertaining. Supposedly, it's one of the better installments in the series and is certainly less slow paced than some of the other episodes I've seen. The decision to cut up the series' episodes and edited them together is undoubtedly a distracting one. The film is of limited interest to Joe Johnston's fans, though you can see his trademarks in his episode. [Grade: B-]