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Sunday, August 25, 2013

first knight

first knight
starring sean connery, richard gere, julia ormond
1995

much like king arthur, another big-budget hollywood epic that followed it by about a decade, first knight is an example of a rather curious creature - a movie that takes the arthurian legend and turns it on its ear. though it doesn't do so nearly to the same degree as the later movie.

so where to start? how about with director jerry zucker, better known for movies like airplane, naked gun and ghost, a guy who has come right out and said that he really wasn't the best person to be directing such a movie as this. and indeed he wasn't.

in my recent reviews of excalibur and merlin, i noted that they both make the mistake of trying to pack in too much of the legend into 140 and 182 minutes, respectively. that's one mistake first knight doesn't make. it chooses instead to take one relatively obscure arthurian yarn and spin it off into a movie, along with focusing on the better known antics of lancelot (richard gere) and guinevere (julia ormond).

at the heart of this story is one prince malagant, a scurrilous sort who's straight out of central casting, villain dept. and who's harrying arthur's people by razing villages, obliterating the populace and that sort of thing. when he abducts guinevere, who's recently arrived at camelot and is due to be hitched to arthur, lancelot springs into action and singlehandedly rescues her.

which kidnapping and rescue are quite ludicrously over the top and suited more to an errol flynn-styled swashbuckler than anything else. and what better time than right now to talk about gere's portrayal of lancelot, who is essentially portrayed as a superman with a snotty attitude and hair that's oh so very gq.

guinevere comes off somewhat better here, perhaps because she's an actual human being rather than the cardboard cutouts that feature in so many arthur movies. as for the third member of that infamous love triangle, the first thing that jumps out about sean connery as arthur is that he's certainly no spring chicken. as for whether a scottish accent is really appropriate for arthur, well, probably not.

all of which can be overlooked since connery serves pretty much as the anchor of the movie. arthur is the good guy of the piece, plain and simple, and connery plays him with a level of calm authority that's hard to beat. as for the rest of the actors, well, there aren't really any, aside from ben cross as boris badunev/prince malagant. yes, there were a bunch of guys sitting around the (somewhat impressive) round table in a number of scenes and presumably they were the knights of said round table but you could pretty much categorize most of them as glorified extras.

first knight was panned in many quarters and i wouldn't necessarily disagree, but on the other hand i have a pretty high tolerance for even mediocre arthur movies. this one had a few moments that were actually quite impressive, though more for the staging than anything else. probably the best of these being when guinevere arrives at camelot at night to be welcomed by arthur and all of the knights carrying torches and then gets her first glimpse of camelot itself. arthur and guinevere's wedding ranked quite high on the spectacular meter as well.

i guess the best i can do is to damn this one with faint praise and say that you could probably do worse (no page boy haircuts in sight and no one breaking into song, at least) but you could certainly do a lot better.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

the crooked circle - 1932

the crooked circle
starring zasu pitts, james gleason
1932

the crooked circle is distinguished by the fact that it's supposedly the first movie to be shown on television, in 1933, at a time when there probably weren't too many tv owners out there to tune in. there's not really that much else to distinguish this one, except that it brought together zasu pitts and james gleason, who played hildegarde withers and oscar piper in two of the later cinematic adaptations of stuart palmer's fiction.

i wasn't so fond of pitts as miss withers and her role here bordered on downright grating. actually i couldn't quite figure out what relationship she had to anyone else in the movie, given that she spends most of her on-screen time playing that old tried and true (and tedious) character of the scaredy cat who's nearly incoherent with fear. gleason's cop character is not that far removed from his inspector piper, though the brooklynese is a bit thicker and he's lower in the ranks.

as for the plot, it pits the sphinx club, a group of amateur crime solvers, against the crooked circle, who dress in robes and hoods, mutter incantations and have marked the head of the aforementioned club for death.

which is really just an excuse for assorted and sundry parties to gather in an old dark house and trot out all of your favorite old school mystery and old dark house clichés (no guy in an ape suit, though). which is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, at least not for me. i tend to be very forgiving of even the dopiest of the old dark house movies and so i found this one fairly entertaining, in spite of its ineptness.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

merlin

in my recent review of excalibur i noted that one of its few shortcomings was that it tried to cram in too much of the arthurian legend. i theorized that the ideal vehicle might have been a lord of the rings-styled three movie package or perhaps a miniseries. the 1998 tv miniseries merlin wasn't quite the ticket but there are far worse ways to spend three hours of your life.

as is the case with mary stewart's five-volume take on the arthurian tales, this is (obviously) merlin's story. it gets underway before he is even born/created when a bad egg known as queen mab decides to whip herself up a wizard type to help bring "the people" back to "the old ways." as nearly as i can tell mab does not figure in any of the arthurian legends and doesn't turn up in any literary works until shakespeare. a queen mab also makes a notable appearance in a somewhat renowned poem by percy shelley.

miranda richardson's take on mab is somewhat along the lines of an aging goth/wiccan with a hissy/screechy voice that begins to grate after about 30 seconds. she's bad to the bone and she has a sidekick to help do her bidding. that would be frik, who's portrayed by martin short and who was initially something of a major drawback for me.

as much as i like martin short (clifford and primetime glick, in particular), early on he provides just a bit too much comic relief for this type of story. the writers also chose to saddle him with some truly tooth-grinding anachronisms such as pirate outfits and whatnot. the good news is that before it's all over frik's character changes rather dramatically and becomes one of the standout characters of the entire piece. but enough about that.

though mab has created merlin (sam neill), who is born in the traditional human fashion, she finds before long that he is not content merely to do her bidding. it's this tension between the two that powers the story. along the way we have a fairly traditional arthurian storyline presented but with a lot of magical whoop-dee-doo and special effects added to spice things up.

early on we see vortigern (rutger hauer) and uther going at it, with merlin and mab each backing a horse in the race. uther comes out on top, of course, and proceeds to blow his lead by seducing the wife of one his allies. which dalliance produces the once and future king known as arthur. who is not a particularly engaging character in this telling of the tale and his father uther even less so. ditto for lancelot and guinevere. to tell the truth i've always found the tale of their infidelity to be tedious at best, and this time around was no exception.

i guess it's no surprise that these characters are all somewhat unexceptional, given that the story is more closely focused on merlin and mab, and to a lesser extent on frik and nimue (isabella rossellini), merlin's love interest. and though he gets a relatively small amount of screen time jason done, as mordred, comes close to stealing the show, though his intriguing performance would have benefited if he'd dialed it back a notch or two.

interesting arthurian trivia bits here include a score by trevor jones, who got one of his first big breaks doing the same for excalibur. also on hand, nicholas clay, who played lancelot in the earlier film and whose role of lord leo here is a relatively minor one.

i guess you could sum this one up by saying that if you were to imagine a miniseries version of the arthurian legend as produced by hallmark entertainment (who did indeed produce this one) with a pretty decent budget, great locations and cinematography and some big name talent (also helena bonham carter, james earl jones, and john gielgud) then this is what it would look like.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

excalibur

excalibur
screenplay by rospo pallenberg and john boorman
1981

the film has to do with mythical truth, not historical truth. (john boorman)

i've long since given up trying to keep track of how many times i've watched the movie excalibur. maybe there's a better example of a movie attempting to encapsulate the entire arthurian legend in less than two and half hours but i have yet to run across it.

which is perhaps the only major flaw that i've ever been able to find with excalibur - that it tries to cram just a bit too much into too short of a running time. if there was ever a great candidate for a four or six hour mini-series i'd say this would be it. or perhaps turn it into three movies like peter jackson did with tolkien's lord of the rings. interesting to note that in his pre-excalibur days director/writer boorman tossed around the idea of doing that very project.

as excalibur gets underway merlin and king uther connive to get the latter hooked up with the lady igraine, despite the fact that she's already the wife of one of uther's key allies. they pull it off and a child is conceived, but merlin has already made the condition that since he assisted in the subterfuge the child will be his. that child is arthur, of course. after merlin takes him away, uther follows and is ambushed and killed, but not before he drives the sword excalibur into a large stone on a hill in the woods.

which, if the viewer hasn't already figured it out, is a pretty good indication that this is going to be a "traditional" retelling of the arthurian legend. by which i mean that it presents the tale with most of the parts that were added in layers over the course of many centuries and none of this stripping out of the magical and fantastic elements that some recent writers have attempted, thank you very much.

from here the story hits many, if not most, of the major points of the legend. there's young arthur pulling the sword from the stone after older and much burlier knights have all failed. there's camelot and a quite impressive round table. there's the good and noble (and rather skilled) warrior lancelot, who becomes arthur's loyal friend, but of course that loyalty gives way in the face of guinevere's charms.

and, of course, there's morgana le fay, arthur's half-sister and nemesis to both merlin and the king. she connives to have a son by an incestuous relationship with her brother and it's this son, mordred, who will be the downfall of arthur. but not until many of the knights of the round table have been done in on a lengthy quest for the holy grail.

all of which is sufficient to keep me on or near the edge of my seat even after numerous viewings. no need to keep heaping on the superlatives, but i will point out a few things that especially contribute to the success of the movie.

that would be the music, for one. while there's an original score in there somewhere (by trevor jones) it's overshadowed by the many well-chosen snippets of wagner. there's also a key excerpt from the o fortuna segment of orff's carmina burana, and correct me if i'm wrong, but this was before the use of the latter became something of an action movie cliché.

the other standout here are the visuals, which flip back and forth between pastoral scenes set in landscapes so lush and green that one suspects trickery on the part of the cinematographer. these are offset with numerous scenes that are so dirty, smoky and gritty that one almost wants to pause the action and go take a bath.

for whatever reason i find myself without one of those snappy closing paragraphs one is supposed to use to cap off a review. about the only other thing i'll say is that it's hard to watch any cinematic work of arthuriana without having it spoiled just a bit by flashbacks to one of the other great king arthur movies. you know the one.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dune: House Harkonnen & Dune: House Corrino

Dune: House Harkonnen
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
2000

Dune: House Corrino
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
2001

My tentative plan was to read/re-read all of the Dune books, including the ones by Frank Herbert and the ones that came after. I started off with a few of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson books and then moved on to their Dune prequel trilogy - the first three Dune books they wrote. I wasn't knocked out by any of the Herbert/Anderson books but I found them entertaining enough - at first.

It was somewhere during Dune: House Harkonnen that I began to feel some stirrings of discontent. They continued to stir as I finished that book and moved on to Dune: House Corrino and they kept stirring. It was somewhere during all of this that I decided to finish that volume and move on to the "real" Dune books.

Which may not hold up as well as I'd hoped. That remains to be seen since it's been a long time since I've read any of Frank Herbert's original Dune books. As for the Herbert/Anderson books, they proceeded in more or less typical Dune fashion, dealing with the exploits of all of the many and varied factions that make up that universe.

But I found a few things to be increasingly problematic as time went on. In no particular order they were the violence, the characterization, the lack of real suspense and relatively uninspiring plot lines.

Let's start with the violence. My thoughts on this might change as I go back to the frank Herbert books. As I recall it those books were fairly violent but a lot of the violence seemed to be hinted at or understated and was relatively subtle. I'm not at all averse to violence if it seems to further the ends of the story but as things moved along it began to seem that Herbert/Anderson tackled this in a way that was quite gratuitous and overdone.

Which kind of ties into my grumble regarding characterization. Which can be summed up by saying that it seemed that most of the characters were clearly either white hats or black hats, with very little grey that I could discern. While the Baron Harkonnen, in particular, and his immediate circle of bad eggs were always presented as being fairly unredeemable in frank Herbert's books, i seem to recall that it was done with some subtlety, as opposed to the over the top and almost cartoonish treatment by Herbert/Anderson.

I guess the lack of suspense is something of a given when you're dealing with a prequel that presents characters who will appear in the "original' volumes. But it was hard to work up too much concern when these characters got in a pickle, knowing for a fact that they would survive. Last up, there's that plotline, which ranged far and wide, as Dune books tend to do, but in this trilogy seemed to mostly be focused on the takeover of Ix by the Tleilaxu and a certain piece of conniving between the latter and the Emperor Shaddam. Which was just too far removed from the events of the Dune books proper for my tastes.

So it's on to Dune now and I'm curious to see just how those books will hold up after all these years. As for whether I'm going to tackle any more of the half dozen or so Herbert/Anderson books that are still out there, that remains to be seen.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

dune: house atreides

dune: house atreides
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson
1999

over the course of the past few months i've read and reviewed three of the "other" dune books, the ones that weren't written by frank herbert. i certainly wasn't knocked out by them but at the time i found them entertaining enough and ranked them as decent efforts. then i went back to the first of the brian herbert and kevin j. anderson dune books - dune: house atreides - and found that by comparison those other three books didn't perhaps fare as well as i thought.

which is not to say that this one is on the level of the first four dune books, which get my vote as the best of the bunch, but in retrospect this one feels much more like a dune book than those other three sequel/prequel volumes.

but about that title. for my money, though the title suggests otherwise, this book wasn't focused that closely on house atreides, or at least no more than any other dune book. the usual suspects are presented here, although the action takes place for the most part a few decades before the events of the first book of the series.

thus the baron harkonnen is still a slim, trim and dashing fellow, rather than the corpulent monstrosity we see in that first book. but he's still a pretty awful guy and as he's just been made governor of arrakis, he turns his attention to seeing how much profit he can siphon off from the spice production there. imperial planetologist pardot kynes also turns up on dune and before long finds himself being accepted into the ranks of the insular fremen.

there's also a corrino plot thread, that focuses mainly on prince shaddam and hasimir fenring's efforts to see that the former is installed as emperor sooner than anyone would have expected. back on caladan, the story deals with duke paulus atreides - grandfather of paul atreides - and his young son leto, and we also see threads that concern the always scheming bene gesserit, a young duncan idaho and a rivalry between the ixians and the tleilaxu.

a pretty interesting piece of work overall and a worthwhile kickoff to the trilogy that leads up - after a fashion - to the events of dune.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

the winds of dune

the winds of dune
by brian herbert and kevin j. anderson
2009

much as paul of dune set out to fill the gap between the events of dune and dune messiah, so too does the winds of dune seek to fill the gaps between that latter volume and children of dune, the third book in the original dune series. did you get all that? if not, please consult your scorecard.

it's a volume that might just as easily have been called bronso of ix, although that probably wouldn't have done much for sales. i don't recall much, if anything, being said about bronso in the original frank herbert books. but in several of the sequels and prequels he is included as paul atreide's childhood friend, though they later become estranged. bronso spends much of this book spreading propaganda aimed at taking the increasingly messianic and tyrannical new emperor down a few notches.

while paul makes a very brief appearance here, much of the novel plays out in that period after he's disappeared into the desert at the end of dune messiah but before the events of frank herbert's next book start. there are also flashbacks to some childhood events that are focused mostly on the bronso/paul relationship.

one of the more fascinating characters in the dune world, at least for my money, was alia, paul's younger sister, who is born with all of the abilities of a full-blown bene gesserit reverend mother. unfortunately, in herbert's children of dune, as well as here, she was painted a little too neatly as a maniacal villain type. which i found a waste of potential, given the directions such an interesting character might have taken.

as with the previous two dune sequel/prequels that i reviewed here, the winds of dune was entertaining enough but hardly knocked me out of my seat. if you can't get enough dune you'll probably like it well enough, but if you haven't read the original books in the series yet i'd recommend focusing your efforts there.