Saturday, December 7, 2013
It’s amazing to see just how vibrant Survivor feels this season, and the thrills are about more than picking rocks. It starts with the first scene of Hayden drawing out Gervase by crowning Tyson the victor. That conversation sets the stage for everything that follows, including an insane Tribal Council. It’s a rare case where a player with his back against the wall actually makes the correct arguments. By pressing the “Tyson as inevitable winner” story line, Hayden gets Gervase and Monica to say exactly what he wants. Ciera’s understated reactions say it all. She realizes that her road to victory doesn’t go through the Galang alliance. Monica’s reassurance that “four is better than six” isn’t what she wants to hear. Unlike the recent One World and South Pacific seasons, it’s wonderful to see everyone trying to win the game. They’d rather draw rocks than fade meekly into oblivion. It takes guts to accept a one-in-three shot to leave the game, so the fact that Ciera sticks to her guns is awesome. Katie is the ultimate loser by chance, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad strategy to flip the game.
Check out the rest of my post for Sound on Sight on this episode through this link.
Friday, December 6, 2013
One of the trademarks of the Disney theme parks in their early days was Circle-vision 360°, which used inventive technology to put the audience inside the movie. Nine movie screens gave the feeling of standing in the middle of the action. The normal use of this set-up was for travelogues around America and then other countries in EPCOT. This changed with the arrival of Le Visionarium at Disneyland Paris in 1992. This attraction used the sci-fi premise of time travel and brought audio-animatronics into the theater to sell the futuristic story. The ambitious mix of film and in-theater presentation arrived at Walt Disney World in November 1994. This version was called The Timekeeper, and it used the voices of Robin Williams and Rhea Perlman with a slightly edited variation of the original French movie. It fit perfectly within a redesigned Tomorrowland and was a popular addition the park.
Robin Williams was no stranger to Disney and its parks in the mid-‘90s. The most famous collaboration was as the genie in Aladdin, and that character now appears (with a different actor) in the stage show in California. He also starred with Walter Cronkite in the Back to Neverland film at the original animation tour at the Disney Hollywood Studios (called the Disney-MGM Studios at the time). His blend of zany humor matched Disney’s attempts to keep their parks from growing stale. It made sense to cast him while trying to revitalize the older technology. He does make jokes about the Jamaican bobsled team and try out his hip-hop voice, so there are a few challenges. Rhea Perlman was a solid choice due to her distinctive voice. She wasn’t as well-known as Williams but fit with the attraction’s style. Both veer sharply from traditional narrators and make the silliness work in this tricky show.
Perlman is the voice of 9-Eye, a robot with nine cameras that explains our ability to see all around us. Williams is the Timekeeper, our navigator through time. The accuracy of this robot’s calculations leaves something to be desired. We’re nearly eaten by a dinosaur, get dropped into a battle in Scotland, and eventually settle into 19th century France. It’s a fast-paced show that has a similar tone to Universal’s Back to the Future ride, without all the motion sickness. Jules Verne (Michael Piccoli) discovers 9-Eye and joins us for a series of adventures that end up in space and the future. There are plenty of impressive aerial shots and the typical Circle-vision moments in bobsleds and race cars. It’s the type of attraction that Disney used to do so well but has largely moved away from in recent years.
Another interesting factor is the influence of a steampunk aesthetic in this attraction and the entire Discoveryland area at Disneyland Paris. Their version of Tomorrowland is striking and exposes the problems currently faced by the Florida version. Ambitious plans to create a similar area here were scrapped, and the result is the mixed bag there today. The Timekeeper could have been part of a grand expansion that wouldn’t have needed much updating. Instead of trying to predict the days to come, it would be a classic vision of the future from thinkers like Verne. Instead, Tomorrowland has become a mishmash of visual contradictions and sells Pixar more than any other theme. An extinct attraction like this one reminds us of the lost potential of my favorite Disney World area as a kid. Given Disney’s hesitance to spend money on their parks, this situation likely won’t change anytime soon.
The Timekeeper closed in February 2006, and it had been relegated to seasonal operations for several years prior to that time. One factor was 9/11 since this show included shots of the World Trade Center. A more likely scenario was the need to put more intellectual property in the parks. The replacement was the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, a theater presentation with little emphasis on anything relating to the future. It generates a few laughs but is hardly an upgrade from its predecessor. The need to connect the parks to movies is fine in theory, but that attraction should be in the Hollywood Studios. If The Timekeeper had to go, it deserved a better replacement. It lives on through Internet videos and reminds us that theme parks can do more than sell products. I’m hoping there’s still a chance for more unique shows to thrive, but that possibility is less likely in this current era.
Note: The site Walt Dated World provided some information for this article. It’s a great resource for checking out extinct attractions that were removed yet remain in our memories.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
When movie fans think of John Ford, the first things that typically come to mind are John Wayne and the grand landscapes of the Old West. Both are present in Ford Apache, the first entry in his cavalry trilogy. It was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Wayne stars in all three films, and he stands tall in each one. He was 41 years old when this movie arrived, and this character differs considerably from the grizzled veterans of his later career. He's the kinder upstart to the serious Henry Fonda this time, and it reveals a different side of Wayne from his expected persona. His screen presence is as strong as ever, but standing up to a powerhouse like Fonda is a tall order.
Fort Apache – Directed by John Ford; Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Pedro Armendáriz, Ward Bond, George O'Brien, and Victor McLaglen
What's the story about?
Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) arrives at the U.S. cavalry post of Fort Apache to take charge. His daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) joins him and sets her sights on the young Sergeant Major O’Rourke (John Agar). Trouble looms from the Apache tribe and its leader Cochise (Miguel Incan). Thursday’s hardline stance against the Native Americans contrasts with Captain Kirby York’s (John Wayne) friendlier approach. His tunnel vision puts them into a conflict that could have disastrous consequences.
How does Ford present the United States and its history?
This is the most intriguing perspective on U.S. history that I’ve witnessed in this marathon. Ford and Writer Frank S. Nugent (in his first screenplay) spend the first hour glorifying the cavalry and then work to tear it down. Thursday is a thinly veiled fictional version of George Custer, who also went to West Point and was a Civil War general. Beyond its connection to the famous “last stand”, this film reveals possible falsehoods in American mythmaking. Despite his disastrous tactics, Thursday is set up as a hero. The heroic painting presents a man who stubbornly led his men to slaughter like a champion. Similar to the “print the legend” statements in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, this misleading exhibit reveals surprising complexities in this western tale.
How does the physical environment play a role in this story?
Ford uses exteriors like Monument Valley to remind us that danger lurks around every corner. When O’Rourke and Philadelphia take a friendly ride, they’re jolted back to reality at the sight of trouble. When York takes a daring journey to meet with Cochise, it happens in a rocky stronghold. The Apache tribe owns the wilderness, and it’s foolish for Thursday to think that he can best them with soldiers out of their element. Ford mixes grand outdoor shots with studio footage, and there are some awkward transitions. Even so, the bleak setting creates a sense of foreboding that the cavalry may not be ready for the battles on the way.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
If there’s a downside to Fort Apache, it’s the uneven treatment of the characters. We spend time building up the romance between O’Rourke and Philadelphia, then it disappears for a while. York plays a key role in the final act, yet doesn’t have much to do until that point. A letter arrives minutes too late to save one soldier, but we barely know him. The saving grace is fine work from the actors, particularly Fonda and Wayne. They don’t get too many scenes together, but they make the most of the ultimate conflicts. Wayne says a lot with his face while holding his tongue against Thursday’s choices. It’s only when the stakes are clear that he must try to save the doomed men. Fonda is known for playing friendly characters, but he’s well cast as the humorless, arrogant Thursday. During the dance sequence, he executes a series of silly moves without cracking even a tiny smile. He’s all business and can’t see the downside in sticking so close to his by-the-books approach.
Does this film still feel relevant in our modern age?
The questions about heroism and legends were ahead of their time in 1948. Even when evidence points against it, we still expect Thursday to do the right thing. Ford shows his many opportunities to back down, but that requires different thinking. He also gives depth to the Native Americans, who aren’t itching for a fight. They’ve been swindled by a corrupt cavalry agent, and they won’t back down. The dominant score feels less modern and distracts from the action on the screen. There’s also a strange moment where O’Rourke proposes marriage after spending just a few hours with Philadelphia. While it’s not a surprise for this era, it’s still a strange moment that takes you out of the main story.
In his Ford biography Print the Legend, Scott Eyman calls Fort Apache one of Ford’s “most complex creations”. Does that approach lead to a successful film?
It’s surprising to note the different beats that Ford and Nugent try to hit within this film. They take their time and spend a large portion just showing daily life at Fort Apache. Supporting characters come and go, and it isn’t clear where the story is headed. Some of these scenes are slower and less inspiring, but they make sense once we reach the climax. Watching Thursday lead the cavalry to their destruction is a gut punch and a big surprise. His frustrating inability to understand the situation (and subsequent martyrdom) bring added layers that support Eyman’s points. I wouldn’t call Fort Apache my favorite Ford movie, but it left plenty for me to ponder after the credits rolled. Ford shows the honor of the individuals in the military while criticizing the actions of the larger entity. Thursday embodies that inflexible mindset and conveys a theme that rings true for us today.
Next week, I'll start a new marathon of modern black-and-white films. My first choice is Much Ado about Nothing, from a man you may have heard of named Whedon.
Monday, December 2, 2013
When I decided to ask readers for input on my 2014 Blind Spots Series picks, I never expected to receive so many great responses. The 50 possible films all deserve to be seen, and the 30 entries spread out the votes pretty evenly. Only one choice, John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, did not receive a vote. The leading movie only appeared on 14 ballots. The 30 entries on this site, Letterboxd, and Twitter have created a diverse group of intriguing selections. The 12 films come from around the world and cross six decades. I'm thrilled to check out all of these picks and can't wait to get started in January.
Here is the official list of movies that I'll be tackling next year:
The Battle of Algiers
Crimes and Misdemeanors
The King of Comedy
My Neighbor Totoro
Night of the Living Dead
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Wages of Fear
One of the most exciting parts of this group is catching up with three horror classics (Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). My background in that area is limited, and it's not my favorite genre. Even so, I owe it to myself to push against this resistance and check out some of the seminal works. Another positive is seeing acclaimed pictures from legendary directors like Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Hayao Miyazaki, and Roman Polanski. Even a lesser-known film like The King of Comedy has plenty of admirers and deserves my attention. Another choice that I need to see is The Battle of Algiers, considered one of the most innovative war movies. It's quite a diverse group and should give me plenty to write about each month.
Beyond these 12 films, I'm planning to check out many of the 50 choices that I listed for the voting. These group will set the framework for the marathons that I tackle during 2014. Just missing the final cut were Nights of Cabiria, Suspiria, Safety Last!, and Pierrot le fou. These and plenty more should get checked off my watch list during the upcoming year. With partners like Turner Classic Movies and my local libraries, there are numerous ways to discover classic films. It's never possible to catch up with everything, and interesting new releases are arriving each month. Projects like this one help me to stay focused, and I appreciate the input from intelligent film lovers to make this happen.
What do you think of my 2014 Blind Spots?
What do you think of my 2014 Blind Spots?
Friday, November 29, 2013
One of the thrills of Survivor: Blood vs. Water has been watching everyone take a shot and really try to win the game. Even when plans blow up in their face, players aren’t meekly drifting towards their end. This makes it exciting for viewers who don’t want to see Boston Rob make a bunch of dummies look stupid. When Caleb and Hayden realize they can’t win against Tyson, it’s refreshing to watch them work to change their spot. Even though their strategy fails, that doesn’t mean the idea is false. If they had blindsided Tyson or removed Ciera, it would have put them in the driver’s seat to win the game. That risk is worth taking because the reward is a great shot at the finals. It only makes sense for Ciera to join them if it’s an improvement in her ultimate standing. That’s the big question surrounding her choice to reveal their plans to Tyson. He’s offering her a spot in the final three, but does he really plan to stick with it? Ciera has a story to tell the jury, and there’s a chance it might sway them. She’s thrilled to have a spot at the cool kids’ table and believes in this prime spot, despite the warning signs it won’t last forever.
Check out the rest of my post for Sound on Sight on this episode through this link.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
One of the more exciting aspects of loving a movie franchise is watching as new people go back and discover it. I've seen all the movies, so I lack that fresh perspective that comes with taking a first look at the films. A good example is the Bond films, which continue to draw more viewers thanks to the success of the Craig outings. Interested fans are going back and checking out the original Connery pictures, which feel much different from the action-packed modern versions. Zoë at the Sporadic Adventures of a Beginner Blogger has watched all the Bond films and posted her thoughts about each one. You should definitely check out those posts and all the great material on her site. At the end of her series, Zoë recruited some Bond fans to write guest posts on various topics about the franchise. I was thrilled to get the chance to participate and put together a list of my top five undervalued Bond films. You can check out the original post on Zoë's site here. In case you missed it originally, I've also provided it on this site for your reading enjoyment.
With the release of Skyfall in 2012, the James Bond franchise reclaimed its place among the great action series and introduced the character to new fans. Exploring the character's past can be interesting, especially given the different pace and tone of the Craig films. The conventional wisdom says to watch the early Connery films, stop briefly with Moore, skip Dalton, and check out Goldeneye for Brosnan. While Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, and The Spy Who Loved Me are a requirement for any prospective Bond fan, there's another group that deserves more credit. You may have heard that these five choices are terrible, but all have something to offer. Let's take a look back at some undervalued options that deserve more credit from the franchise's many fans.
5. Quantum of Solace (2008)
The deck was stacked against Daniel Craig’s second outing as Bond right from the start. Both mainstream audiences and diehard fans loved Casino Royale. The expectations were high for the follow-up, and a step backwards was no surprise. It has story issues and a mediocre villain, but there’s still plenty to like. The opening car chase throws us right back into the action and connects well to the end of the previous movie. Marc Forster’s more frenetic shooting style is a bit much, but it injects major energy into the opening scene. There’s also an interesting cat-and-mouse game at the gorgeous opera stage in Bregenz, Austria and impressive stunts throughout the film. Criticisms focused on the villain’s meager plans, but that isn’t really the point. The focus stays on Bond’s emotional state after Vesper’s betrayal, and we’ve never seen this type of approach in the franchise. It doesn’t totally work, and the writer’s strike definitely harmed the script. Even so, the nastiness leveled at this film is way more than it deserves. It’s well above the bottom level of Bond films. Has anyone watched Diamonds Are Forever lately?
4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
George Lazenby’s one appearance as Bond is pretty much a straight adaptation of Ian Fleming’s source novel. It’s a rare case where the main plot (and the heartbreaking ending) wasn’t dramatically changed by the filmmakers. Admittedly, Lazenby is a bit flat compared to Connery and doesn’t exude the same physicality. Even so, he makes Bond more vulnerable and matches the story’s tone. Diana Rigg is an excellent choice to play Tracy, and Telly Savalas is easily the best Blofeld. The action scenes are inspired, particularly the climactic bobsled chase down a mountain. It’s a step above both Connery films that surround it (You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever) and ends with a brutal gut punch. It would have been interesting to see if Lazenby’s reputation would have grown if he hadn’t stepped aside following this movie. He had little experience and might have done better with a second try.
3. The Living Daylights (1987)
Timothy Dalton arrived with great fanfare after Roger Moore finally exited, but he only appeared in two films. Despite that limited timeframe, both are stellar entries and deserve more credit. One of the reasons they’re dismissed is the topical connection with the issues of the time. This film has Bond still dealing with Cold War issues and even helping the Afghan resistance battle the Soviets. It also has more romance and spends time building his relationship with Kara Milovy (Olivia d’Abo). Despite Joe Don Baker’s cartoonish main villain, this movie feels more like a classic spy adventure than its recent predecessors. Dalton isn’t as physically imposing as Craig, but he’s an accomplished actor who makes the character feel real. The action remains solid, particularly a high-flying airplane battle over the desert. It’s an entertaining movie that set the stage for the more daring follow-up two years later.
2. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Despite having some truly painful sequences (the Blofeld opening, everything with Bibi), Roger Moore’s fifth appearance is one of his best. It responds to the ridiculous excesses of Moonraker by putting Bond in a more low-key setting. It includes a rare moment when Moore gets his hands dirty, and the proper actor didn’t like it. When Bond vindictively kicks a hoodlum’s car down the hill, it’s a rare moment where this version of the character shows the rough edges of the original incarnation. It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. The major action sequence has Bond skiing down a bobsled ramp while being chased by a motorcycle. It’s a ludicrous scene that’s fun without drifting too far into camp. This film walks that line better than most and stands just behind The Spy Who Loved Me in the Moore rankings. He should have quit after this one.
1. Licence to Kill (1989)
Dalton has plenty of fans, but the general consensus still regards his second appearance as a failure. It was a box-office disappointment but arrived during the crazy movie summer of 1989. Before Craig, this was the best example of a tougher Bond that connected to Fleming’s version of the character. Bond kills without remorse and brutally goes on a personal vendetta after Robert Davi’s vicious drug lord. Dalton sells the anger and brings some much-needed weight to the role. Who knows where he would have gone with another film? The final tanker truck chase is one of the series’ greatest action sequences and includes remarkable practical effects. By the time Bond and Sanchez face off in the end, the stakes are off the charts. While the drug lord plot puts the story firmly in 1989, it remains effective today. Davi creates one of the great Bond villains, and Dalton matches him to great effect. The result is a hugely undervalued film that deserves a lot more attention.
Which Bond films deserve more credit? I'd love to hear your picks!
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
When Robert Picardo looks back on his career, I expect the highlight won’t be getting romanced by a Gremlin in a wedding dress. He joins Christopher Lee, John Glover, and returning stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates for one of the most ridiculous sequels ever made. How did Gremlins 2 get a $50 million budget? It’s become a cult film, which makes it a good choice for this year’s Blind Spots Series. Joe Dante resisted the offers to return to the franchise, which made huge sums of money with its original film in 1984. When he changed his mind six years later, the movie world was different. Audiences didn’t have the same interest in Gizmo and the creatures that spawn from this Mogwai. Don’t let him have water! No eating after midnight! These are the basic rules to keep the nasty Gremlins from arriving. Once they start taking over the massive building, no one is safe from their mayhem.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch – Directed by Joe Dante; Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, and Christopher Lee
First of all, I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen the original Gremlins. It would have freaked me out as an eight-year-old, and I just didn’t get around to seeing it after that point. Even so, I’ve caught parts on TV and understand the basic premise. Produced on an $11 budget, it earned a huge box office yet was also criticized for stretching the limits of the PG rating. These objections played a role in the introduction of the PG-13 option, and its sequel received that rating. The creatures present an odd mix of cute aspects from a kids’ movie thrown into a blender with horror genre elements. It’s a tricky balance that found a large audience in 1984, but the sillier follow-up didn’t make a dent. Does it deserve more credit? There are numerous references to movies and pop culture, but that isn’t enough to carry a film. When the characters and plot are so thin, it becomes a total lark. In a sense, Dante tricked the studio and created a daring experiment with little chance to succeed.
The story mostly takes place at Clamp Enterprises, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the empire of Donald Trump. Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) works there as a designer, and his fiancée Katie (Phoebe Cates) is a tour guide. Clamp’s namesake is the arrogant Daniel Clamp (John Glover), who oversees everything and maintains a god-like status. His research department ends up with Gizmo, the kind Mogwai from the first movie. When Billy rescues Gizmo, it sets off a chain reaction that sends the entire office into chaos. If the Gremlins escape the building, they could spread into the city and be unstoppable. This description may hint at tense sequences or some thrills, but that’s hardly the case. Dante and Writer Charles S. Haas develop a limited plot but don’t really care about making it work. It’s just the framework to set up the mayhem.
There are some clever gags that bring a laugh, including having Leonard Maltin present his negative review of the first movie and then get eaten by Gremlins. The most unique gag has the monsters taking over the movie theater and stopping the film. It takes an impassioned speech from the imposing Hulk Hogan to get the story on track and allow the movie to finish. The original video release also had an alternate version with the Gremlins taking over the VCR. John Wayne was the savior in that case. Like many of the film’s gags, they’re clever but pretty obvious. Dante makes everything so manic that it loses much of its edge. The violence is cartoonish and even has a Gremlin getting destroyed in a paper shredder. They’re still pretty grisly enemies, but the menace goes away pretty quickly. Gremlins are genetically modified into spiders and other different creatures, and one even becomes smart. Tony Randall voices the leader, and he brings some rare wit to that character.
Gremlins 2 lives in the world of Howard the Duck and Super Mario Bros. as a head-scratching major studio release. It’s slightly better than those train wrecks and has some charm, but it’s a pretty terrible movie. Galligan and Cates are stilted as the leads, and even the great Christopher Lee gets little to do as Dr. Catheter. His character name says all you need to know about this movie’s humor level. I can’t compare it directly to the original, but I expect that it slides pretty far down the scale. Dante followed up his Gremlins success with Explorers, which offered a ridiculous ending that included aliens obsessed with American television. His segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie was a creepy take on Warner Brothers cartoons, and those characters open up this film. He loves self-referential humor, but his storytelling skills leave something to be desired. Gremlins 2 pummels you with these in-jokes and doesn’t provide enough other elements to make it work. It’s an interesting mess with some fun scenes, but they aren’t enough to avoid inconsistent results.
Interested in the other cult films that I've covered for this series? You can check out the entire slate of Blind Spots entries by clicking here.