The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes

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The Mummy (1999)


Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

(1999) Adventure (Universal) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, John Hannah, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oded Fehr, Jonathan Hyde, Erick Avari, Bernard Fox, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Patricia Velasquez. Directed by Stephen Sommers

 

Note to Hollywood filmmakers: now this is how to do monster movies in the 21st century. Something old (the setting), something new (the effects), something borrowed (the premise), something blue (a couple of racy outfits). Even 13 years later this still remains a standard.

Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is an adventurer in the tradition of Indiana Jones. He’s smart, strong, a crack shot and as it happens, one of two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Hamunaptra, the legendary (some would say mythical) Egyptian city of the dead. It’s reputed to be the resting place of the treasure of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It’s also the resting place of Im-Ho-Tep, the high priest of the dead and murderer of Pharaoh Seti II. Even back then they frowned on regicide a little; ol’ Im-Ho-Tep got the nastiest Egyptian punishment there is which is to be slowly devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles after being entombed while still alive. That definitely leaves a mark (those Egyptians could be pretty nasty when they wanted to be).

Cut to the 1920’s. After Evy Carnahan (Weisz), a sweet-natured librarian discovers a map to the legendary lost city, she enlists O’Connell, Jonathan (Hannah) her ne’er-do-well brother and a corrupt Warden (Djalili) – read designated victim – to help find the site, where the Book of Amon Ra, which contains the secrets of Egyptian magic, is also said to reside.

What they do find when they finally get there is the Book of the Dead. This awakens Im-Ho-Tep, who is mighty steamed – as you would be if you had been buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. He brings with him the ten plagues of Egypt (the ones in Exodus – check out The Ten Commandments if you aren’t up on them) and the ability to control the elements.

He wants to re-animate his dead lover (after 2,000 years, a fella’s got needs) and kidnaps the librarian to do so. From here on in, it’s a roller-coaster ride of dazzling special effects, spine-tingling thrills and daring escapes.

This is one of the best movies — in terms of sheer entertainment — that’s come down the pike since, say, Aliens or at maybe even the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. It moves at breakneck speed and visually is superb eye candy. Director Stephen Sommers took a fairly hackneyed monster movie and turned it into a franchise for Universal, which sorely needed one.

And Brendan Fraser as an action hero? Who’da thunk it, but it works. Fraser is very likable, in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart. Weisz, then at the beginning of a career that has brought her an Oscar to this point, did a good job as the plucky heroine and Hannah set the bar for the comic relief. Fehr, playing a kind of Guardian of Hamunaptra, shows some Arabic hotness for the ladies and makes a credible action hero in his own right but you’re not watching the movie for the acting. It’s all about More and Bigger and Louder, and The Mummy delivers.

While some of the scenes are a bit too intense for younger children in general, this is one fine family entertainment that you’ll want to add to your video library. particularly if you have teenagers in the house.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun and entertaining. Re-invents the classic movie monster film. Great CGI effects for their time. Weisz and Fraser make an attractive heroic couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes are a bit grisly and may be too scary for smaller kids.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and a bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Ardith Bay, the character Fehr plays, is an anagram of Death By Ra. It is also the name of the character played by Boris Karloff in the original 1932 version.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: In the original DVD release there was a  text Egyptology feature that is actually quite informative. The 2001 Ultimate Edition includes a timeline of the reiging Pharaohs of Egypt. The 2008 Deluxe Edition included a storyboard to film feature. All of these are available on the DVD version as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $415.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Outsourced

 

Daredevil


Daredevil

Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios engage in a little foreplay.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, Paul Ben-Victor, David Keith, Kevin Smith. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

It is a fact that every day, handicapped people show over and over again that they are capable of amazing things. Some are aided by technology but much of it is sheer willpower.

The young Matt Murdock (Terra), who has stood up for his father (David Keith) when neighborhood punks call him a washed-up boxer and a mob enforcer, is shocked one day to spot his loving dad thumping on someone who hadn’t been making his vig. Matt runs off, causing a traffic accident that ends with him being doused by toxic waste, right in the eyes. This leaves him blind for life. However, there is an interesting side effect: Matt wakes up to find he has outrageously acute hearing, including a kind of sonar sense, which allows him to “see” almost as well as any sighted person — better, in some ways.

He also spends time developing his body into a graceful, acrobatic, athletic machine. When his Dad refuses to throw a fight and is murdered, his son is left to seek revenge. The adult Matt Murdock (Affleck) becomes a lawyer. Justice being blind jokes aside, he has a particularly strong streak of wishing to do the right thing in him.

Not content at achieving justice through conventional means, Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil, utilizing a red leather costume, and becoming a semi-urban legend in New York, one that reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano) is hell-bent on tracking down. Those who have seen the first Batman movie will note the similarity. His day job allows Murdock to represent the downtrodden, much to the chagrin of partner “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), who yearns for clients who pay in actual cash, rather than in foodstuffs. Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Avari) who is in bed with the corrupt Wilson Fisk (Duncan), the legendary Kingpin of Crime. When Natchios tries to get out of business with Fisk, the Kingpin brings in a psychopathic master of hurled objects, Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Natchios, which he does, framing Daredevil for the deed in the process. Elektra — who is falling in love with the blind lawyer, swears revenge, not knowing that it is his alter ego she has sworn to kill.

The New York City of Daredevil is a dark, gothic place, not unlike the Gotham City of Batman, and like the Caped Crusader, Daredevil inhabits the shadows and rooftops of a corrupt, dangerous city. The problem with casting Affleck in the role of Matt Murdock is that he is far too likable. Affleck doesn’t carry off the brooding vigilante as well as he does the wisecracking lawyer, so the dual personality of Murdock doesn’t mesh as nicely as it could.

Farrell carries the movie, enthusiastically chewing the scenery and spitting it out so he can chew more. Favreau and Duncan are excellent as they nearly always are; Favreau would go on to direct the Iron Man movies but his association with the Marvel studios began here. His chemistry with Affleck is pretty keen.

The Elektra of the comics is far more threatening than the Elektra of the big screen. Garner, who on paper is an excellent choice to play her, is dispatched with near-comic ease in nearly every fight she takes part in. This compares unfavorably to the character in the four-color version (who is kickus assus maximus to the nth degree) and herein lies the problem with any adaptation of any comic.

Those who love the comic book will inevitably measure the movie against the comic, and in most aspects will find it wanting. Daredevil has always been one of the consistently best-written and innovative of story in Marvel’s arsenal. The movie’s writing denigrates it to an unsophisticated Batman knockoff. Yet, there are moments of poetry, such as when Murdock asks Elektra to stand in the rain, which allows him to see her face using his radar sense. That’s one of the best moments of any Marvel superhero film, ever.

A nice little aside – many of the characters here are named after comic book writers and artists, many of whom who worked on the Daredevil book itself. There are also several people associated with Daredevil’s long run at Marvel (including Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller) who make cameos in the movie. In addition, something must be said about the soundtrack which is one of the best for any movie in the last ten years. The tracks from Evanescence are particularly haunting. Also, The final confrontation between Fisk and Daredevil is very nicely done, visually speaking although the whole thing of the little water conduits running below the floor are head scratch-inducing.

Overall, this isn’t a bad movie. There are some deficiencies, true, but there is a large number of things the movie does well. Affleck would have been an excellent Daredevil had he another movie or two under his belt. The most important thing here however is to take the movie on its own merits. Try not to see it as a note-perfect portrayal of the comic hero, because you’ll only wind up disappointed. Judge it for what it is; a better-than-average action-adventure movie, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

WHY RENT THIS: Better than average action movie. Fine supporting performances from Farrell, Duncan and Favreau.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit of a Batman knock-off. Affleck carries off Murdock better than Daredevil. Elektra a bit too wimpy here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first American movie in which Farrell uses his native Irish brogue.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD features a featurette on the comic book series, a comparison of the “Shadow World” as visually realized in the movie vs. the comic book, three music videos and an enhanced viewing feature which, when an icon appears onscreen, allows viewers to see the same scene from different points of view. There is also a Directors Cut DVD edition which restores 30 minutes of footage to the film, cut initially to bring the movie from an R rating to PG-13.  However, oddly enough, the Directors Cut edition has almost no special features, merely a commentary track and a 15 minute making-of featurette. The Blu-Ray contains both the Directors Cut and all the features from the initial DVD release and as such is the best bet for those interested in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.2M on a $78M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tower Heist

Paul Blart: Mall Cop


Paul Blart: Mall Cop

Shoplifters, be terrified: Paul Blart is on the job!

(Columbia) Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Keir O’Donnell, Raini Rodriguez, Shirley Knight, Bobby Cannavale, Erick Avari, Stephen Rannazzisi. Directed by Steve Carr

The legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher once famously said “Nice guys finish last,” and in our ultra-competitive American culture we have taken that as gospel. Sometimes, though, it’s not about finishing first – it’s about finishing at all.

Paul Blart (James) is a nice guy. He’s a single dad with a daughter (Rodriguez) who adores him and a mom (Knight) who spoils him. He works as a security guard at the local mall, but he dreams of becoming a state trooper. However, he’s hypoglycemic and passes out from low blood sugar inches short of qualifying for the exam.

Blart is on the socially awkward side. He has a thing for Amy (Mays) who sells hair extensions out of a kiosk, but is all thumbs when it comes to wooing her. He is the object of scorn to most of the people who work at the mall, especially pen salesman Stuart (Rannazzisi), who consider him something of a fat loser on a Segway. In fact, this movie might have the highest amount of Segway use of any movie ever. Take that for what it’s worth.

Anyway, he isn’t too busy to train Veck (O’Donnell), a newbie on the security team, or hang out with Vijay (Avari) who sells cell phones. After mistakenly drinking a pitcher of margaritas (he thought it was the non-alcoholic sort), he manages to alienate Amy and get his heart broken, not for the first time.

Then on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year), a gang of parkour runnin’ skateboardin’ tattooed criminals take over the mall in an effort to get the credit card codes so they can make off with a huge score electronically. Blart manages quite accidentally to be the only security man left inside the mall. This is his chance to finally be the hero he always wanted to be. But is he that hero, or the fat loser that everyone thinks he is?

I think you know the answer to that question. This is a very rare movie in that is a comedy that appeals to a family crowd that doesn’t portray every adult as a complete buffoon and have kids save the day. It also is a comedy that doesn’t drop an “f” bomb every other word and rely on sexual and scatological humor to carry it through.

This is essentially a 90 minute sitcom, with all that implies both positively and negatively. Blart is a bit of a schlub, but his heart is in the right place. There are a lot of fat jokes and pratfalls, but James is so likable that you can’t help but be won over by him.

This isn’t rocket science and by the same token it isn’t the worst movie ever either. While it got blasted by critics at its release, I can’t really figure out why it got so much hate. It really is an inoffensive, at times charming film. It doesn’t really inspire great love; by logical extension it shouldn’t inspire great hate either. It’s a movie that if you see it, you shouldn’t feel like you completely wasted your time.

WHY RENT THIS: Essentially harmless with a few laughs scattered here and there. James is a pleasant lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not what I would call essential to your DVD collection, while it is mostly inoffensive there isn’t any real bite to it.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor is a little crude in places and there’s some mild violence; otherwise, this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first movie with a release date in January to ever gross over $100 million at the box office.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Going the Distance

Daredevil


Daredevil

The man without fear...of red leather.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, David Keith, Leland Orser, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

In the wake of the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, the rights to a boatload of Marvel superheroes were sold to several studios eager to cash in on the superhero craze. This led to a glut of hero movies in the middle pat of the last decade wth some of the releases being better than others.

Matt Murdock (Affleck) is a lawyer who was blinded in an accident as a young boy (Terra). His father Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Keith) is an ex-prize fighter trying to raise his boy as best he can on his own, desperately hoping he won’t make the same mistakes he did and elevate himself from a Hells Kitchen he could never escape himself.

Matt is bright enough although he gets picked on by the local bullies because he won’t fight, at the behest of his father. Young Matt believes his father to be an honest dockworker, but Jack has been picking up extra cash working as hired muscle for a local crime boss. When Matt accidentally witnesses his father’s other line of work, he runs blindly away, and winds up being dowsed in the face by the proverbial toxic liquid.

The result is that the boy is blinded for life, but the compensation is that his other senses sharpen significantly. As a matter of fact, he uses sound as a kind of “sonar” to allow him to “see” images. Tired of being picked on, he begins to work out, train himself to fight. In the meantime, Jack is shocked into going back on the straight and narrow and takes up fighting again and does pretty well. However, when he refuses to throw a fight, he is murdered.

Years later, Murdock works alongside his partner Foggy Nelson (Favreau) in a Hells Kitchen law firm that specializes in taking on the cases of the underdog against the corrupt and the untouchable. It doesn’t pay very well – often the poor clients pay in fish or some other form of barter – but Murdock is able to sleep nights. Well, he would if he were sleeping; instead, he goes out to exact justice that he can’t obtain as a lawyer as a costumed vigilante known as Daredevil. The police, predictably, pooh-pooh his existence but a lone reporter, Ben Urich (Pantoliano) pursues the story with the zeal of Woodward and Bernstein.

Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a billionaire, in a coffee shop and falls for her instantly. The attraction is mutual; she also has superb martial arts training and this is one of those rare courtships that take place by beating each other up. Elektra’s dad (Avari) is tied to the new crime boss, Wilson Fisk (Duncan) a.k.a. the Kingpin of Crime, and is anxious to get out and retire. Fisk doesn’t like people backing out on him and hires an Irish hit man named Bullseye (Farrell) to take care of business.

Bullseye has the uncanny knack of accuracy. Anything he throws hurls or shoots hits its target without fail. When Murdock discovers what’s going on, he immediately changes into his Daredevil guise and rushes out to protect the father of the woman he loves. Unfortunately, he gets there too late to prevent Natchios’ death, but just in time for Elektra to mistakenly believe him responsible. He also manages to avoid one of Bullseye’s projectiles, earning the obsessive enmity of Bullseye in the process.

Director Johnson was woefully inexperienced when he was given this project to direct and in many ways, it shows. What also shows is the reverence and respect in which he holds the source material. It becomes a two-edged sword; some of the elements he wants to bring from the comic book series (such as Daredevil’s uncanny agility) don’t translate well, although at the time it was released I thought it looked fine to be honest. After watching it at home recently, I found the wire work to look unnatural and there is quite a bit of it.

Affleck was uncomfortable playing a costumed superhero and it is very apparent. When he’s Matt Murdock, for the most part he’s fine. However, there are times as Murdock when he looks soulful and a bit sorry for himself; that just doesn’t jive too well with the costumed vigilante that Daredevil is and who Matt Murdock is on the comic book page. There, Murdock is stubborn and principled and prone to leaping where angels fear to tread – he is literally without fear. Here, Affleck plays him as stubborn and principled and a bit of a whiner. It’s not a bad performance but it isn’t the right one.

Garner was magnificent as Elektra here, which makes the spin-off film she did on the character all the more mystifying in how truly awful it was. She makes Elektra passionate and real, suspicious and lethal. The comic book character is one of the most compelling in the Marvel universe and while she doesn’t quite reach those standards, Garner does do a fine job in bringing her to life.

Duncan and Farrell both look like they’re having the time of their lives in the villain roles, with Farrell often looking up with a boyish smile like he just discovered its Christmas morning. Few actors today can play villains with the kind of relish that Farrell brings to the role. Duncan is far too jovial as a person to make Fisk as menacing as he is on the comic book pages, but he manages to make him memorable nonetheless.

Fox has had several of the Marvel properties under its banners (including the ongoing X-Men and the Fantastic Four) and while the movie was a success for the most part, it never achieved the popularity or acclaim to make a sequel likely – in fact, Affleck has stated flat-out that he would not consider playing the role again, or any other superhero role for that matter.

In any case, the movie is entertaining enough to recommend it and the soundtrack with its loud guitar-oriented rock is one of the better movie soundtracks of the last decade, and it made a star of Evanescence, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on your view of Evanescence (good thing in my book). If you’re looking for something to transcend the genre, keep on moving. If you’re looking for something that will keep you interested and invested for 90 minutes, you’ve found your movie.

WHY RENT THIS: There are times when Affleck is effective as Matt Murdock. The supporting cast is excellent. The filmmakers hold the source material in high regard and utilize a lot of elements that will make Daredevil fans smile. The soundtrack is great.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The overuse of wirework makes the fight scenes look just awful. Affleck spends too much time looking soulful and trying to evoke pathos; the Matt Murdock I know doesn’t feel nearly as sorry for himself.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and some sensuality, but nothing too graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The budget for the movie was initially set at $50 million, but after the success of Spider-Man Fox upped the budget to $80 million.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes several music videos from the soundtrack, “Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil” which focuses on the creative aspects of the comic series and “Beyond Hell’s Kitchen” which details the challenges and tribulations on getting the movie made.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Revolutionary Road