Film critics: how useful are they anyway?

December 17, 2007

Every summer or so (dating back many years), and occasionally in the winter, the hallowed circles of film criticism seem to go through a major identity crisis. In the summer: why do so many people still go to see the movies that we’ve not just disliked, but often truly loathed? and why won’t the studios screen those movies for us in advance? In the winter: why has no one else seen our top movie picks for the year? And yet, sadly, despite the copious amounts of erudite writing, nothing seems to change. Go figure.

Here are some excerpts from how this weighty matter played out through 2006-2007:

SUMMER 2006

Avast, Me Critics!” Ye Kill the Fun: Critics and the Masses Disagree About Film Choices (yep, that whole thing really is the title)

A.O. Scott (The New York Times)

But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for.

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater?

[…] So we’re damned if we don’t. And sometimes, also, if we do. When our breathless praise garlands advertisements for movies the public greets with a shrug, we look like suckers or shills. But these accusations would stick only if the job of the critic were to reflect, predict or influence the public taste.

Screening Call

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)

There’s been a bit of media chatter over the last month on the question of whether movie critics ”still matter.” Obviously, I have a vested interest in the subject — I confess! I really want to matter! — but what irks me is that whenever this issue comes up, which is every few years (generally in the midst of the summer season, when some mediocre blockbuster that all the reviewers hated becomes a big hit anyway), it leaves in its trail the same soggy residue of lazy analysis and historical half-truth about what critics do, why it should matter, and, if you look closely, still does.

[…] The vast majority of movie critics I know are not snobs. We enjoy a vast range of films and help, in our non-godlike-power way, to guide readers to (or away from) them. What the ”Do critics matter?” question truly misses is that the heart and soul of our jobs is not merely to recommend. It is to take this popular art we all love and hold it up to the light, to absorb it and reflect it back to you, to enhance the experience of seeing a movie by serving, on the page, as a companionable guide, someone to bounce your own opinion off of, whether or not you happen to agree with that opinion. It’s that process, that exchange, that dialogue that matters — and will, as long as the movies themselves matter too.

Criticism’s status quo getting thumbs down

Anne Thompson (The Hollywood Reporter)

But critics do have a huge impact on independent movies, [Paul Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal] adds. Tentpole movies with gargantuan ad campaigns don’t need critics to brand their titles. But most other movies need reviews, which are crucial to their long-term life, from their theatrical run through television and DVD. That is why filmmakers kill to get a theatrical platform even in just a few key cities. Films like the 2005 mock-docu “My Date With Drew” could easily have gone directly to DVD — but the filmmakers insisted on the legitimization of a theatrical review.

WINTER 2006

Do Movie Critics Matter?

Richard Corliss (Time)

Oh, our readers revere us — while calling us heartless when we don’t like a film they love, and snobbish when we like a film they wouldn’t care to see. Our publishers cherish our expertise, although they’d rather print profiles of stars than reviews of the movies they’re in. The big movie studios are crazy about us — although they keep us out of screenings that every other staffer on the newspaper or magazine is invited to.

SUMMER 2007

Calling Out Film Critics

Mike Nizza (The New York Times blog)

That the movie “300″ was able to weather an unusually fierce barrage of bad reviews on its way to becoming the No. 1 movie in America is prompting a simple question. Should critics just … stop?

One way to answer that would be to judge the success of critics as studios judge the success of their movies: By their box office receipts. People may disregard reviews, but do they continue to seek them out?

In defense of film critics

Peter Rainer (The Christian Science Monitor)

Why do we need film critics? It’s a question that movie executives, publicists, and even readers often ask around this time of year, as we edge into summer, and the studios haul out their extravaganzas – the types of films often panned by reviewers.

[…] But criticism – reasoned, informed, independent-minded criticism – is truly the only thing protecting the consumer from the seller in the movie marketplace prior to a film’s release. That’s why studios try to marginalize serious critics – the ones who can’t be counted on to gush over every piece of product that skitters off the assembly line. The marginalization usually takes the form of withholding preview screenings until it’s too late for the film to be reviewed on its opening weekend. Newspaper and magazine feature editors may discover that their access to movie stars has dried up if the house critic is too tough. Movie ads may be pulled.

WINTER 2007

Do Film Critics Know Anything?

Richard Corliss (Time), round two – as a movie writer himself, I think this guy may have some job issues

[…I] realized that we critics may give these awards to the winners, but we give them for ourselves. In fact, we’re essentially passing notes to one another, admiring our connoisseurship at the risk of ignoring the vast audience that sees movies and the smaller one that reads us.

[…] the Golden Globes and the Oscars, if they follow the critics’ lead, will have V.D.D. — viewer deficit disorder. Large numbers of people won’t watch shows paying tribute to movies they haven’t seen.

[…] And it all starts here, with critics fighting over which hardly seen movie they want to call the best of the year.

See Cinematical’s thoughts on the seasonal Corliss crisis here.

For some other views from ’06-’07, click on one of the links below:

Rotten Tomatoes
For a list of movies not screened for critics in ’06; shockingly, critics despised them once they did finally see them – who would have thought?

Public radio
In print and audio; go for the audio, clearly there’s way too much text in this post already anyway. Helpful quote: ” ‘I’ll even go one further and say that when you have a very big movie and you get a bad review from critics, I bet there are some people at the studios who say, “I think we got a winner on our hands.’ ”

Variety
Helpful quote: “The distribution gurus say they prefer “four-quadrant movies,” but I”d suggest that there are only two: One quadrant consists of the hardcore fans who are propelled by “buzz” and the second embraces the rest of the filmgoing public who wait to learn whether the movie”s any good or not.” If you can’t guess, they’re speaking about movies like 300, which I seem to recall doing, you know, okay at the box office.

Forbes
Beware the Forbes Welcome Screen; but once you get past that, another look at critics being “frozen out” of film screenings.

MSNBC
The war between the elitists and the populists: fought to the death, or to the deadline at least, until the end of time. Oh, and Pirates again (ooo, and another list!).

The New York Times
Yet more on movies that don’t get screened for critics, but this time via The Da Vinci Code.

Okay, that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what do I think about all this? Well, I think that as long as there is something to critique, we’ll have people there critiquing it and an audience who wants to know what they think. The format may change (a platform in the Forum, a pulpit, print, blogs, virtual transmission of a central system’s information), but the need and message stay the same. We always want to know what others think, particularly those who seem like an authority in some way and can make an “official” judgment, and will seek out what they have to say. Not for everything, sure, but for enough. Whether we follow what they say is a bit irrelevant; we still need to know. And therefore, we still need them.

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Quotes

December 14, 2007

National Treasure

One of my “junk food” favorites. And no, I would not care to say how many times I’ve seen it – not because the number’s embarrassing, of course, but just because, you know, I don’t want anyone to fell intimidated (or, well, scared).

And again no, this is not intentionally a “Best of Riley” collection, but hey, he does have all the best, and some might say “the only good,” lines. (gotta love the role of comic relief / brainy technology sidekick)

SCARY BAD-GUY HELPER: [looking at an elaborate, underground wooden staircase] How do a bunch of guys with hand tools build all this?
BEN (Nicolas Cage): The same way they built the pyramids, and the Great Wall of China.
RILEY (Justin Bartha): Yeah… the aliens helped them.

RILEY: We didn’t miss it because… [pause] you don’t know this? I know something about history that you don’t know!
BEN: [tense] I’d be very excited to learn about, Riley!
RILEY: Hold on one second, let me just… [deep breath] let me just take in this moment. This is cool. Is this how you feel all the time? Cuz, you know… Well, except for now, of course…
ABIGAIL CHASE (Diane Kruger, our very own Helen of Troy): Riley!

BEN: Your accent… Pennsylvania Dutch?
ABIGAIL: Saxony German.

BEN: Do you know what the preservation room is for?
RILEY: Delicious jams and jellies?

MISC. RILEY:

[whining] When are we gonna get there…? I’m hungry… This car smells weird…

Albuquerque. See, I can do it too. Snorkel.

That means… by the time Ian [Sean Bean] figures it out and comes back here… we’ll still be trapped… and he’ll shoot us then.

Yeah, someone that did something in history and had fun. That’s great. Wonderful.

♦ ♦ ♦

For more fun quotes from this American history / Indiana Jones combo (an interesting pitch meeting, no doubt), go to IMDB or Wikiquote.

To learn how You Too Can Walk In The Steps Of History like Ben Gates (dramatic capitalization added by me), click here for National Treasure film tourism.


Movie travel destinations

December 12, 2007

Are you a set-jetter? And nope, I didn’t write that wrong. With the seemingly endless need these days for one-word sound bites and catchphrases – the interminable celebrity “blended name” phenomenon (wasn’t that supposed to burn out, like, 2 years ago?) and the constant barrage of new e-words like bacn (hint: it’s not spam) – there is even a cute little term for film tourism: set-jetting. Like jet-setting, but, you know, backwards, where “set” refers to a film set, and jet … well, you probably got all that long, long ago. It’s people who travel to visit places where movies were shot or take place, okay?

Um, anyway, if you are a set jetter, or one of your Christmas gift recipients is and that DVD package just won’t cut it this year (if they have the original release and the collector’s edition of that DVD, they probably don’t need the ultimate director’s cut special edition in a collectible painted tin as well, but that’s just a hunch), there are plenty of great destinations for you to try out.

Of course, one option is to just travel to famous film locations like New York, Paris, London, and so on, and see the sights yourself. Apparently, UK’s film board is hoping that many people think that way after this movie holiday season and will want to soon set-jet off to see the locations prominently displayed in new films like The Golden Compass and upcomers like the new James Bond and The Dark Knight.

Here are some fun film location activities you can do on your own:

The real “Hogwarts Express” in Scotland

Hogwarts Express (Harry Potter) – aka, the Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland
Pictured above.
(Approx. £29 round trip for an adult, second class. Less than 6 hrs round trip. For dates of operation, fares, timetables, and more, click here.)

I’m very excited, because I’ve actually done this one and can, you know, speak from experience, which is always a bonus. Steaming its way from the small Highland town of Ft. William in Western Scotland to the very small port village of Mallaig (try the Smoked Haddock Soup at one of the seafood restaurants during your 2 hr break in the town; trust me, it’s worth it), and then back, the Jacobite Steam Train and its route were both used in the Harry Potter films as subs for the gleaming Hogwarts Express and its journey to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Sadly, the interior is not quite Hogwarts material – and no magical candy cart! the indignity… – but the scenery on the ride is spectacular, and when else are you ever going to ride on a true steam train?

Bonus: Ft. William sits right next to the beautiful Glen Nevis, a location featured in Braveheart and also Harry Potter, among other films.

Cinderella’s palace (Ever After) – aka, Château Hautefort, France
Pictured below.
(Entrance fee is €8.50 for an adult. Click here for hours, directions and other information.)

Okay, while it’s not Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany or the (supposed Sleeping Beauty inspiration) Château d’Ussé in France, both of which helped inspire Disney’s original animated Cinderella, it does have the unique distinction of being the home of Drew Barrymore’s Prince Charming (Dougray Scott) in Ever After. Complete with drawbridge and turrets, the exterior and interior of Château Hautefort were used in many scenes in the film (that cool beamed room where Leo da Vinci paints? actually in the castle itself).

Not to mention the fact that it’s located in the gorgeous rolling hills and fields of the Périgord, kind of a lesser-known version of Provence if you will. Since it seems as if Périgord literally has a castle on every hill top, make sure to leave some time to see more than one, particularly the towering Beynac (a darn cool fortress built in the 12th century that was also used in Ever After) and the cute little village (used in Chocolat) that sits below the castle and along the Dordogne river. The Périgord area also has some pretty impressive caves (with cave drawings!), including Lascaux (or its replication anyway; the original is closed off to tourists, but the replication is startlingly authentic, minus that rubbery-style plastic floor, of course) and my personal favorite, Padirac (ever want to feel like you’re in that mythical boat that goes across the river Styx? now’s your chance!).

If you like this castle, you may definitely want to consider looking up Chatsworth in England, the Pemberley in Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice (and rumored to be the inspiration for the original Darcy abode in the classic Austen novel). For a complete Pride and Prejudice movie tour in England, check out this tour provided by British tours. And if you happen to be in India and have some free time, you might want to look up the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which was featured prominently in Bride and Prejudice (title similarity to Austen novel definitely not coincidental).

The Beach (The Beach) – aka, Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Leh, Thailand
(I have no idea. Maybe Wikitravel knows?)

Enough with the cold places, I think. And for this one, I think I’ll let it speak for itself. Or rather, the pictures speak for themselves. It was the location of The Beach after all.

And I would recommend the so-called James Bond Island (from Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun), otherwise known as Khao Phing Kan, while you’re in Thailand, but I think that one may have already succumbed to mass set-jetting (i.e., tourism overload disorder).

Also check out other beautiful film locations, such as Malta and Tenerife, in Expedia UK’s Top ten film set locations list.

◊ ◊ Budget Travel does an excellent real world breakdown of various film spots and moments (including restaurants, shops, streets, mansions, trains, etc.) from 10 different movies released in ’07, such as The Bourne Ultimatum, Atonement and even Ratatouille (the more people-size side of things, though).

◊ ◊ At Ripple Effects: also make sure to check out Arti’s own beautiful photos of famous film locations like Petra (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but without the Holy Grail), Lacock (Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice miniseries – remember Meryton?) and Bath (Austen again). Scroll down for the Petra photos, which are definitely a not-miss.

Chateau Hautefort

♦ ♦ ♦

But let’s be honest, why go to all that effort when someone can just do all that troublesome “finding” and “researching” work for you? Here are some organized tours that will take you through everything you want to see. And yes, I know the distinction between some of these and the items in the previous list may be a bit hazy, but what can I say, I like living on the edge.

Lord of the Rings – New Zealand

With the success of the epic trilogy, let’s just say it’s highly unsurprising (bordering on dull) that many New Zealand tour grips have developed their own specialized tours that guide your through the various (and quite breathtaking) sites used in Peter Jackson’s fantasy films. Activities could include everything from simply viewing the valley of Helms Deep to rafting the Anduin.

Here are a bunch of options. Costs, naturally, vary widely by trip and the trips last anywhere from half a day to over 2 weeks (for the truly dedicated fans, I’m guessing).

All things Dracula – Transylvania

Because nothing says “vacation” like a ritual killing of the living dead. Yep, that – along with a viewing of “Dracula’s castle,” a stop at Vlad the Impaler’s citadel and the consumption of something called a “Vampire dinner” (totally benign, I’m sure, this is Transylvania after all) – is included in Transylvania Live’s well-known Vampire in Transylvania: Dracula tour. Don’t worry, I’m, say, 86.5% sure that the ritual killing isn’t real.

Price is generally €1390 per person for a 7 day / 6 night trip (meals, entry fees, etc. included).

Steep? Well, good news, the site declares that the whole trip is available for free if:

You don’t have a reflection in the mirror,
You decompose when sun light strikes you,
You’re over 200 years old,
Can use your wings to fly to Transylvania,
[…] Come join your fellow vampires in Transylvania.
Blood treats not included

Transylvania Express (a railway tour company) also offers 4 and 5 day Dracula trips starting at €945 / €1994. They also offer special Dracula trips for groups.

Pirates of the Caribbean – Dominica, in the Caribbean Sea (appropriately enough)

I know what you’re thinking. Pirates? Really? Isn’t it time that someone finally pays attention to this film trilogy? Well, fortunately, at least the Tamarind Tree Hotel and Restaurant on the Caribbean isle of Dominica agrees with you! They’ve thought ahead of the curve to design a 7-day package that takes you to all those Depp-graced spots on the island.

For 2007-2008 rates and other information, click here.

Don’t want to stop there? Check out about.com’s look at some of the other Caribbean locales used in the Pirates film shoot.

… and much, much more – New York, San Francisco, Philly, and D.C.

Come to New York and you see a movie scene around every corner – isn’t that where Sally ate her (extremely) good sandwich? or where Sara ate her slightly-less-than serendipitous frozen hot chocolate? And sure, you can visit Katz’s Deli and Serendipity 3 yourself (and, well, brave the waits yourself as well – expect about 1 hour to 1 1/2 hour wait at Serendipity on the weekends if you haven’t reserved, a little less if you have), but why not have a tour company take you to all the other sights you might not think of?

On Location Tours provides approx. 2 to 4 hour tours of movie (and TV) spots in the Big Apple (and Washington DC), with tours that specialize in everything from Sex and the City to just Central Park, for about $15 to $40 per person.

Washington Walks offers a Bus, Camera, Action! Reel Washington 3 hr tour for $30 of the national capital’s big movie spots, such as those seen in All the President’s Men and The Exorcist.

Not to be left out, San Francisco has its own handy tours, including these two Hitchcock-inspired tours (because what trip can really be fun without getting totally spooked out?) that guide you through those eerie (or they will be) sights from Vertigo and The Birds (which includes a Shadow of a Doubt sighting as well).

Also, while this is totally unguided (I know, I know, but this tour fits in so well in this section!), tourism organizations in Philadelphia and DC have banded together to produce a National Treasure guide to the two political capitals.

And for more of a fun list of sights in NY and the movies shot there (from the Central Park reservoir and Times Square to those oh-so-realistic, palatial Manhattan apartments – and just because you’re on TV, don’t think we’re not looking at you, Monica Gellar!), click here. For movie location mistakes in NY (that’s the NY subway??), and other cities, click here.


Charlie Wilson’s War

November 6, 2007

What better (or, well, worse) way to commemorate the end of the first day of the writers’ strike than with a post on an upcoming movie? In, you know, the desperate hope of more new movies (and, of course, other entertainment – hang in there, The Daily Show!) to come, someday.

Plus, I had to write something about this buzzworthy Oscar contender before the phrases “Oscar contender” and “Oscar buzz(worthy)” became seriously annoying, and everywhere. Sadly, like those omnipresent Christmas decorations I already see going up in stores (did the new Daylight Saving Time skip us right past Thanksgiving?), it seems to be happening already.

What’s so Oscar contentious about Charlie Wilson’s War? Well, here’s my comprehensive (on a very, very small scale) explanation:

Plot

CIA. Congress. Back door politics. Covert operations in Afghanistan. But pre-9/11. Basically, think way back (20 some years!) to the days of the Cold War.

According to Coming Soon, the film is:

…the true story of how a playboy congressman, a renegade CIA agent and a beautiful Houston socialite joined forces to lead the largest and most successful covert operation in history. Their efforts contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, with consequences that reverberate throughout the world today.

Popular book

The film is based on the well-received, New York Times bestselling book Charlie Wilson’s War by the late George Crile, a CBS reporter and 60 minutes producer. And then there’s its subtitle – “The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times” – which reeeeally goes all out with that length thing, and, hey, long titles are on the cutting edge of Hollywood blockbusters these days. Okay, to be honest, there’s basically just one other film with a long title, but that’s still something. And it starred Brad Pitt! (see: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Big screenwriter

The movie was written by Aaron Sorkin, the undisputed master of mile-a-minute, admittedly often incomprehensible dialogue (don’t tell me you didn’t want to rewind The West Wing at least a couple of times to desperately try and catch that crucial two second snippet of conversation) by very well-credentialed talent. Yes, he wrote the not-very-political Sports Night (one of my personal favorites – I own every disc of the, uh, two seasons) and perhaps he hasn’t had the best of luck recently (the late departed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), but he’s also the mastermind behind The West Wing, The American President, and yes, A Few Good Men. The man knows his behind the scenes politics.

Big director

A four-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner (for The Graduate), Mike Nichols is certainly not a director to sneeze at. With Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, Silkwood, Working Girl, The Birdcage, Primary Colors, Closer, and on TV, Angels in America and Wit, under his belt, Nichols has got both breadth and major credibility. Working Girl and Angels in America? The Birdcage and Closer? Not a director who’s afraid of trying out (and, of course, succeeding at) different genres.

REALLY. BIG. STARS.

Clearly, Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin have quite the rolodex (I wouldn’t mind seeing it, really…), or someone does, because the film has got a seriously heavy cast. The playboy congressman and the beautiful Houston socialite? Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts respectively. That’s right, the Gold Standards of likable, and bankable, Stars (capitalization intended) in the same movie. You can just see the “America’s sweetheart meets America’s everyman in this season’s top Oscar contender!” headlines now. (you know I had to insert that Oscar phrase back in there somewhere)

Throw in the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the renegade CIA agent, as well as appearances by soon-to-be-crowned princess Amy Adams, Devil Wears Prada favorite Emily Blunt, Superman sidekick (remember Otis?) and Oscar winner Ned Beatty, and cult TV sweetheart Shiri Appleby (any Roswell fans?), and you’ve got one helluva talent pool.

And this is different from Lions for Lambs… how?

They’re both about Afghanistan and the politics of war, not to mention congressmen. They’ve both got major directors and a stratospherically A-list cast. And obviously, they’re both aiming for Oscar. The difference? Well, several things.

The screenwriters: up-and-coming newbie (and new blood is always a good thing!), Matthew Michael Carnahan, versus TV’s critical darling veteran, Sorkin. Essentially, we’re talking about the writer of A Few Good Men and The West Wing versus the writer of The Kingdom and Smokin’ Aces. The winner? You decide. And you can! Once both movies are out anyway.

And really, they’re just very different films. I mean, in the end, you know any trailer that asks “Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no?” has got some seriously high-falutin’ gravitas on hand, a definite “point to make.” And certainly nothing against gravitas (or Robert Redford, I swear!), but Charlie Wilson’s War simply has a bit of a different take on a war film, going the route of important, dramatic content mixed with, believe it or not, knowing, unpretentious humor. It almost seems to be a comedy, or at the very least a couple of entertaining (yet still educational!) hours at the theater. Lions for Lambs via Forrest Gump. Sort of.

In any case, perhaps War‘s take on the genre will help it avoid the deadly political war film curse. Not to jinx it before it’s even been released or anything, of course. (knock on wood!)

Here’s the trailer:


Best and Worst Mythology Movies – sorry, ‘King Arthur.’

August 28, 2007

I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a myth geek. I even read academic books about myths in my spare time (yuck, I know). Which is why, as a movie geek too, I was so excited when my favorite film magazine, UK’s Empire, recently posted a blog entry by Helen O’Hara on Hollywood’s recent interest in movies based on classic myth or legend.

O’Hara, a self-proclaimed “history geek and fantasy lover,” makes a few choice comments about the recent film updates (“Troy works wonderfully as a silent movie” and so on) and what she would like to see in the future (Táin Bó Cúailnge, anyone?). And since I’m, well, a history geek and fantasy lover myself, I couldn’t resist using her entry as inspiration to make a list of what I believe are my favorite and least favorite movies based on myths and legends.

MOST FUN

The Mummy – I believe I’ve said it before, but this is one of those guilty pleasure movies that I can watch again and again (and I do). I love ancient Egypt and ancient Egyptian mythology, and this has got fun spins on both. A Book of the Dead made entirely out of some sort of hardened black substance? Sure, why not. A Mummy that brings with it the ten plagues of Egypt? An interesting take on the Bible, but okay. An expert on ancient Egypt as an action heroine? It’s about time! Fun, entertaining (sometimes in a campy sort of way), action-packed, somewhat romantic, and rooted in Egyptian myth, The Mummy’s got it all.

Troy – Okay, it has its weak points (for me, the Paris/Helen chemistry-free romance), but it’s got some awesome fight scenes (Brad Pitt vs. Eric Bana in a gracefully brutal Achilles and Hector showdown) and I have to admit that I was touched by the love story of Achilles and Briseis, whether or not it was true to Homer’s The Iliad, the movie’s basis.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Not for everyone, this is one of those movies that most people I know either love or just don’t get. Me? I still crack up at the opening scene (I’m getting better!) and:

-What is your favorite color?

-Blue. No yel- Ahhhh!

And who can not appreciate an extended discussion on the flight capabilities of the African swallow?

StargateThis is myth-based, you say? Of course it is! Clearly it is simply a sci-fi retelling of ancient Egyptian myth. Who is the god Ra? Why he’s an alien, of course! How else do you think they built the pyramids? (Riley from National Treasure, you were right all along) In any case, it’s got Kurt Russell and James Spader battling it out with that guy from The Crying Game in an alien version of ancient Egypt. It doesn’t get more fun than that.

Aladdin (Disney) – Perhaps not the most accurate adaptation of the Arabian Nights (if the tale of Aladdin is a Nights tale at all), but probably the most financially successful one. Who would’ve thought that Robin Williams as a blue genie could be so much fun? And don’t even try to deny that you’ve had “A Whole New World” stuck in your head at some point or another – for better or for worse.

Hororable Mentions: Ghostbusters and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Okay, a bit of a stretch perhaps, but the use of a Sumerian god, Gozer, and an Aztec curse? They might both be fictional, but still clearly influenced by mythology.

CAMPIEST (and thus, lots of fun as well)

Clash of the Titans – This is truly a camp classic of mythology. Presenting the tale of Perseus and Medusa with stop-motion animation (see the giant monster Kraken move jerkily forward to attack!), this 1981 film has got enough action, fantasy and romance to satisfy anyone. Not convinced? Then go for the actors who play the gods: Maggie Smith plays Thetis, Ursula Andress is Aphrodite (Venus), and Laurence Olivier himself plays Zeus. And for you gamers out there, Harry Hamlin, who does the voice of Perseus in God of War II, originated the role in this movie.

Comingsoon.net reports that Warner Bros. is scripting a remake. Well, I suppose it was only a matter of time.

Jason and the Argonauts – Another stop-motion animated classic, but this time from 1963. It’s a retelling of the classic myth of Jason and his crew of Argonauts (including Hercules), and their search for the Golden Fleece. If you like Clash of the Titans, you’ll like this.

Excalibur – Another cult classic. A dramatic and violent, and beautifully shot, retelling of King Arthur and his knights. With Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Bryne, Liam Neeson, and others. Be prepared for lots of mist!

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys / Xena: Warrior Princess – I know they’re not technically movies, but you know I had to include them.

The Thief of Baghdad (1924) – Watch the caliph’s daughter swoon over Douglas Fairbank’s swashbuckling (yes, swashbuckling) Aladdin in silent black and white. Need I say more?

Honorable Mention: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Referencing classical mythology and Celtic folklore, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is of course the classic comedy by William Shakespeare. It is, however, also a recent film from Fox Searchlight. Sit back, relax, and watch stars like Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christian Bale, Kevin Kline, and Stanley Tucci have lots of fun running around in the forest, while occasionally tripping over Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.

MINISERIES (solid and not too shabby)

The Odyssey (1997) – Okay, I can give adaptations a hard time, but let’s admit it, it’s not easy to adapt a classic epic, especially one that is one of the most famous in the Western world. Although not perfect (but what is?), this miniseries with Armand Assante as Odysseus manages to pull off a solid retelling and keep many of the tale’s details intact. Also starring Vanessa Williams, Isabella Rosselini and Christopher Lee.

Mists of Avalon – Based on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular King Arthur epic with a feminist twist, I didn’t think this was half-bad. The book was still worlds better, but a solid adaptation nonetheless. Plus, Michael Vartan plays Lancelot!

Helen of Troy (2003) – I’m torn on this one. One of those “this is the true story of…”, it doesn’t necessarily always stick directly to the original mythology. Plus, some of the legendary characters get short shrift; Achilles and Hector who? But I still found the miniseries – about the Trojan War from the perspective of its famous beauty – entertaining at times and usually fun to watch, and it contains many of the characters left out of other adaptations (Cassandra, Pollux, poor Iphigenia, even Kings Atreus and Theseus make appearances).

Arabian Nights (2000) – Nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries, this adaptation of the 1001 Nights plays up the romance between Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar, to whom Scheherazade must tell a story every night in order to put off her execution at his hands. It’s got its campy moments, but it doesn’t digress as much from the Nights as other adaptations and Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible II, Ever After) and Mili Avital (From Stargate! It’s all coming together…) are convincing as the troubled king and his beautiful storyteller.

Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King – A miniseries that aired on the Sci-Fi channel and is based on the Germanic tale, The Nibelungenlied (nee-buh-luhng-ehn-leed, I believe – it’s a very impressive name to mention at parties). Ever heard of Wagner’s Ring cycle? Also partly based on The Nibelungenlied (translation: Song of the Nibelungs). Benno Furmann, a Kevin Sorbo look-alike with his long hair, plays Siegfried, the hero and dragon-slayer, and Alicia Witt is Kriemhild, his sometime lover. Kristanna Loken plays the other lover, the warrior Brunhilde. Not bad for a miniseries, it’s got lots of fun, smoldering dialogue and special effects. It lags at times, but generally provides lots of often campy fun. It was originally released outside of the US and under various different titles, including Ring of the Nibelungs.

BEST

Spirited AwayHayao Miyazaki‘s beautiful and haunting animated movie was heavily influenced by Japanese Shinto mythology and tradition. It tells the tale of a girl who wanders into a supernatural world populated by all manner of magical creatures. The film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. Just goes to show that you don’t need fancy CGI to make a stunning animated film. If you’ve seen this and liked it, go rent My Neighbor Totoro. An earlier film by Miyazaki, it’s the story of two young sisters and their adventures with magical spirits. Playful and fun, but also moving.

Whale Rider – Set in New Zealand, the film uses Maori myth and tradition to captivating and poignant effect. It’s a touching story about a girl growing up to become a leader in a male-dominated society. The lead actress, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the film at the age of 13.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Like Monty Python, most people I know either really like this or don’t get it at all. An odd, yet oddly captivating, retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, the movie follows three ex-prisoners in the 1930s as they encounter a Cyclops, sirens and more on their search for treasure and love. George Clooney is Ulysses and Holly Hunter plays the modern Penelope, “Penny.” In my opinion, all worth it for the scenes with the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Ramayan (1987-88) – A hugely successful Indian “miniseries” that recounts the famous epic story of Rama and Sita, ancient heroes in Hindu tradition. According to Wikipedia, the series was watched by over 100 million people when it was first on the air. It can move at a slow pace and may seem campy to Western audiences, but it’s lovingly done and an Indian classic. It’s also a great way to learn more about beloved Hindu figures. The whole thing is 78 episodes long (no, that’s not a typo), so if you haven’t seen any of it, catch an episode of it sometime if you can.

Fritz Lang’s Die NibelungenThe Nibelungenlied again, but this time in silent black and white. The famous director of Metropolis tells the epic tale in two parts (Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge). Slow but powerful.

WORST

Hercules (Disney animated) – I just don’t like this movie, I’m sorry. Hades as a used car salesman type? No, no, no, and no. Not for me.

King Arthur – I love Clive Owen, and have a soft spot in my heart for Keira Knightley due to her beautiful portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but I was not impressed by this movie. They were striving for the “real story” of King Arthur, and I respect that, but it just didn’t work.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (animated) – Yet another example of why celebrity voices alone (Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones) can’t sell a movie.

UM…

Pasolini’s Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (The Flower of the One Thousand and One Nights) – I really don’t know what to say about this film. It defies description. Critically acclaimed, yes, but I’m just not sure I get it. Be warned though: for adult audiences ONLY.

The Fountain – Lots of references to Mayan myth, but again… ?

TO BE DETERMINED

Beowulf – Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother? I’m suspicious, but willing to give co-screenwriter Neil Gaiman the benefit of the doubt. For my review, click here.

Thor – In development, an adaptation of the Norse superhero in the Marvel Comics. For more, go here for Rotten Tomatoes’ news of the event.

Yes, I know I’ve missed some (First Knight and Camelot come to mind – even The Matrix and Star Wars), and probably many, but this list can’t go on forever. What can I say? The ones above are the films that made the strongest impression on me, for better or worse.

For great print versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Arabian Nights, check out Neil Gaiman’s Dream Country for his award-winning take on Shakespeare’s play, and Fables and Reflections for a look at the world of the Nights – both volumes are part of Gaiman’s Sandman series.


I was biking to the arctic the other day…

August 23, 2007

There are some achievements that will always impress me: winning a Nobel prize, climbing Mount Everest (yes, yes, I know it’s easier to do now – but have you climbed it recently?), completing the marathon, reading all 4000 (four thousand) some pages of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

And now I think I’ll have to add one more for its sheer nerve (and insane spontaneity): cycling from Scotland to the Arctic Circle. According to Scotsman.com, a movie is going to be made about James Duthie, a deaf factory worker from Scotland who cycled all the way up through Scandinavia and into the arctic around 50 years ago:

He had originally intended to cycle to Morocco, but changed his mind in France. He then travelled north, through Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden where, at Jokkmokk, he crossed into the Arctic Circle.

He did admit to taking the odd lift, as well as ferries to cross sea channels, but he still cycled an estimated 3,000 miles in the three-month journey.

Well, if he took a lift here and there, I don’t know… But I guess he did learn Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish sign language along the way, so that’s something at least.

The movie is going to be based on Duthie’s journal, I Cycled into the Arctic Circle.


Powers that be against Tom Cruise’s new film

August 22, 2007

Various news sources, including The Guardian, are reporting troubling circumstances on the set of Tom Cruise’s new movie, “Valkyrie”:

11 extras were injured when they fell out of a truck. They are now threatening to sue.

The German government has forbidden filming at certain historical sites. It heavily frowns upon the choice of Cruise to portray one its heroes – an army officer who attempted to assassinate Hitler – due to the actor’s involvement in Scientology. For more on Berlin v. Scientology, see this article.

All of this has led to speculation that the film might be cursed, or worse – jinxed.

Unfortunate events or fateful signs of supernatural disapproval? You decide.