Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG)

Standing in a circle giving one-liners, THE MOVIE!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (20th Century Fox, 2003). At the turn of the 20th century, the world is besieged by a rash of crimes and kidnappings that sets nations on the brink of war.

I've read "The Phantom of the Opera." I don't think he's meant to be a "mastermind" sort of villain, but whatever.

In an effort to apprehend the villainous "Phantom," a secret service headed by a man calling himself "M" (Richard Roxburgh) recruits a cadre of adventurers with incredible skills and amazing powers.
What does the "M" stand for? Mycroft Holmes, perhaps...? (SPOILERS: NO)

There's legendary hunter Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery in his final (?) role),
"I don't undershtand this shtory, but I'll do it!"

invisible thief Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran),
The invisible cockney.

the amazing inventor and commander of the "Nautilus" submarine Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah),
"Go ahead: Just one Kwik-E-Mart joke and I will destroy you!"

vampirically-powered scientist Mina Harker (Peta Wilson),
La Femme Suck-ikta.

the mild-mannered Doctor Henry Jekyll and his monstrous alter-ego Edmond Hyde (Jason Flemyng),
"Well Mishter Hyde, we meet again under different Shircumshtances." 

and the indestructible immortal dandy Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend).
"I'm irredeemably unlikable so you'll cheer when I die! Rawr!"

They are joined by young American agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West) in an effort to stop the eruption of a world war!
"Keep it together. You're not just an insert character to serve wounded American pride. You're not!"

Some background

This film is twenty years old now and seems worth talking about. Directed by special effects and makeup designer Stephen Norrington who had previously helmed the popular Marvel vampire movie "Blade" (1998), this is his fourth (and so far last) directed film. I personally watched it at the theater on the day of release, July 11, 2003 in the U.S.A.

The good

I know that you're probably dying for me to get to the juicy stuff, so let's get the "good" out of the way. This movie is based on a comic book series written by legendary writer Alan Moore (of "The Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta" fame) and drawn by artist Kevin O'Neill.

Before Alan Moore began demanding that Hollywood take his name off of everything. This movie is why.

The premise of the comic was original, taking popular literary figures of the 1800s and putting them in a shared universe in the way that DC Comics' "Justice League" and Marvel Comics' "Avengers" works. This approach, with Moore's tight writing and the adult nature of the material makes for a mature work that doesn't lean on complexity so much as the characters themselves. The characters, their interaction, and the way that their relationships evolve drive the comic. You'll notice that I've not mentioned the movie in this section on the "good." There's a reason.

So many ruined and stalled careers...

All right. So many people may know that this was the director's last film and the last "official" acting job of Sir Sean Connery (he did a few voice acting roles, but nothing on this scale after this film). I mean, the director did "Blade," which was a highly competent and popular film. The cast is filled with talented and experienced actors. The marketing push for this film was unrelenting. The effects were top-notch for the time. How could a juggernaut of talent, based on such a great idea, and backed by one of the most legendary movie studios of the time possibly fail to the point of ruining several careers? How?

Well… One only has to watch the film to understand it. It's a hot mess. For starters, most of the mature themes and violence from the comic book are scrubbed out, making this little more than a PG action film. What little "mature" themes remain are handled so immaturely that they seem childish in the mix (Dorian Gray gets stabbed in… his private are, and his only response is "if that had been permanent I'd be very upset," and that is the most adult joke in the script). All backstory is delivered in clunky one-liner laden dialogue scenes between characters standing in a circle measuring their manhoods. Now, there are action scenes, and they are the fun bad early 2000s era CG that you'd expect. A few special effects and practical designs stand out: The "Mr. Hyde" prosthesis looks pretty good (and comic-accurate), the Nautilus being shaped like a sword is an interesting take,

Not at all how it's described in the book, but okay.

and the "auto-mo-bile" is a pretty neat looking car.
It looks cool, but a bit too developed for the time.

The addition of Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer to the comic's original cast isn't a terrible idea, but their inclusion results in little more than two more characters to STAND IN A CIRCLE while spouting snippy one-liners.
"Gentlemen?" "Extraordinary!"

On that point, hearing characters espousing "gentlemen" and "extraordinary" over and over again while they're STANDING AROUND IN A CIRCLE isn't clever, it's just irritating after the third time it happens, in the first half-hour.

"Gentlemen!" "Extraordinary!" "League!" "What do you mean, 'league?'" "Are... are we not doing that?"

The script (adapted by James Dale Robinson and endlessly altered by studio interference) absolutely kills this movie. Imagine a Joss Whedon movie where instead of humorous quips it's just unrelenting "I'm cooler than you" one-upmanship. You might not be able to articulate why it's bad while you're watching it, but your brain knows. Your brain knows. Some characters had to be changed for rights issues (switching out H.G. Wells's villainous invisible man, Hawley Griffin, for the slightly less villainous made-for-the-movie Rodney Skinner), which sort of lessens the impact, although I will admit giving Mina Harker vampire powers could have been a welcome change from the comic… Although her lines are so incredibly awful as she's STANDING IN A CIRCLE TRADING ONE-LINERS WITH EVERYONE ELSE that it hardly matters.

Also, there's this scene, immediately rendering the one meaningful death in the film meaningless.

Not safe for young children, not mature enough for anyone else

The film is rated PG-13. Language-wise, there isn't any swearing or strong language outside of annoyingly immature innuendo. Most of the on-screen deaths are bloodless, even when the people in question are being shot, sliced up by swords, or having their throats ripped out by vampires (there's a little blood, sure, but not what you'd expect from a horror film).

The single bloodiest scene in the film.

The most disturbing image is when the invisible man is burned by a flamethrower and looks like his semi-visible skin is charred and melted, but don't worry kids -- he's okay at the end with no visible blemishes or even bandages for some reason. Dorian Gray's death is a bit unsettling, but only because it looks so fake from the computer graphics.

Where can you watch it (and why would you want to)?

As of this review, this film is available for streaming for free on Tubi, or for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime video. I watched my DVD version. Is it worth watching? Well… I'd say check it out at least once. The (underused) cast is serviceable, the action parts are worth seeing for how bad they are, and the script is noteworthy for how to not write a script. At the very least, it's the last time you'll see Sean Connery in a live-action film.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Return of the King (1980)

Hot Gollum-on-hobbit Action!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Return of the King" (Rankin-Bass Productions, 1980). Following the events of "The Hobbit," Bilbo Baggins's (Orson Bean) nephew Frodo (also Orson Bean) sets out on a quest to destroy the old hobbit's ring of invisibility, revealed to be the ultimate weapon in the war for Middle Earth!
The ring you don't want to commit to!

To keep the ancient artifact out of the hands of Sauron, the lord of evil, Frodo and his servant Samwise Gamgee (Roddy McDowall) must take the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, deep within the enemy's territory. It's not just Sauron's legions of orcs and goblins that they'll have to contend with, though: The creature named Gollum (Theodore Bikel) is out of his cave and he wants his "birthday present" (the ring) back!

A little background

This is the third animated feature-length film based on author and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien's works. While the previous film in the series, "The Lord of the Rings" (Fantasy Films/Bakshi Productions, 1978) was made by a different production company and had its own unique style (apart from Rankin-Bass's "The Hobbit" from 1977), this production picks up a little bit after the events in that film and reprises the Topcraft Japan animation and design that made "The Hobbit" so memorably painterly (as I have stated in my previous review, Topcraft would eventually disband and reform under the name "Studio Gibli").

And by "a little bit after," I mean, "jumps ahead significantly."

First, the bad

It's by far the least faithful of all the adaptations of this story that I have seen. There are big things like the fact that the story almost exclusively follows Frodo and Samwise throughout their journey after the Fellowship of the Ring has broken up. There is a bit of story following Gandalf the Grey (John Huston) and the hobbit Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Sonny Melendrez) as they attempt to defend the city of Minas Tirith from an army of orcs until the army of the Rohirrim horse riders and fellow hobbit Mariadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Casey Kasem) arrive.

A lot of the non-Frodo story revolves around this part.

While this is accurate to the book to a degree, the insanity of the Steward of Gondor, Denethor (William Conrad) completely leaves out his distress over the loss of his sons Boromir and Faramir (who are never depicted… sort of) as the cause of his breakdown.
It does still include Denethor's Palantir, though, which even the Jackson version leaves out.

Fellowship characters like Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the wood elf are entirely absent, and while the future king Aragorn is shown he isn't really a driving force in this production.
Aragorn: Largely absent from this film.

Little things like the depiction of the Nazgul border on ridiculous, with weird flying horses and long-haired skeletons taking the place of the black riders on their foul birds.
By far the least compelling design in the film.

There's also almost no distinction between the character models or armor for the men of Gondor or of Rohan, which mistakenly makes them seem united before the arrival of Aragorn.

Be forewarned, there is a lot of music and singing in this movie, and it may not be to everyone's taste.

"The Minstrel of Gondor" might have more screen time than Aragorn.

Folk singer Glenn Yarbrough returns this time as "the Minstrel of Gondor," and his songs are used to catch up the story and set moods in certain scenes, while harder fare like "Where There's a Whip There's a Way" are a bit goofier but in my mind's eye adds charm.
"Where there's a whip, there's a way!"

The good

Despite some (pretty big) minuses, there's still a lot to like here. For starters, Samwise Gamgee doesn't seem quite as… "special needs" as he does in the Bakshi movie, and Roddy McDowall gives a pretty emotional performance overall.

There is an annoyingly long time spent inside one of Samwise's ring-induced daydreams, though.

There are bonus orc-to-animal TFs for you fetishists out there, however.

The art direction, while at times inaccurate to the source material, still runs circles around the Bakshi version, though admittedly it doesn't have the larger scope of that production.
This is still how I picture Minas Tirith in my head-canon.

There is content that was left out of the Jackson movies, such as the watchers at the gate in the Cirith Ungol watchtower, which while not incredibly important to the story is still a bit scary and a welcome addition.
These things are still creepy even to this day.

My two favorite character designs in this movie are Gollum and the Witch King of Angmar. The Gollum design is a reprisal of the one used in "The Hobbit," and he looks more like a frog than in either the Bakshi or Jackson versions, and I much prefer the look as it suits his aquatic nature.
Still my favorite Gollum design. So interesting to look at!

The Witch King of Angmar really hits it out of the park, though: His design is far more accurate to the book than even Peter Jackson's version, and he looks exceedingly creepy having no visible head and a crown floating above two glowing red eyes. Also, his voice (acted by Don Messick) has a hollow reverb added to it which is, again, much creepier than the Jackson version which disappointed me after seeing this.
Legitimately creepy.

I need to vent these grievances

Real talk/sidebar: The Jackson versions of the Ringwraiths are just awful in my opinion. While they were initially very scary and book-accurate creepy, the fact that Aragorn, a mortal man is able to drive them away from the hobbits just completely makes them seem like weenies. In the book, he drives them away with Narsil, his sword and birthright with the broken blade that originally cut the ring from Sauron's hand, and as an item of power over their master it drives them off, but in the movie version he just… Throws fire at them. Lame (but kind of funny).

Some "ultimate evil."

Add to that the laziest Witch King design they could have come up with (literally the same hooded figure with a crown over the hood), and they're just not all that cool anymore. 
Really?! THIS is how you chose to interpret it?

Also, and this is a constant complaint of mine, the "oliphaunts" depicted in every translation of this story are always shown to be giant monsters of incredible size.

Yes, even here.

This always bothers me, because in the book they are very clearly meant to be regular-sized elephants that seem incredibly large because they're being observed by the diminutive hobbits. Also they're probably called "elephants" too -- the (humorous) term "oliphaunt" is used by the uneducated gardener Samwise because he's struggling to remember what they're called, never having actually seen one before. This is the most annoyingly consistent literal misinterpretation of what was clearly meant to be a joke that I have ever observed in fiction, and shows how readers gloss over Tolkien's love of language to the detriment of not getting the message.
No. No. No. WRONG!

Safe for kids(?)

There's no foul language, no nudity or sexuality (well, Frodo starts the movie off in just his shorts, but he's still wearing his shorts), and no visible on-screen deaths.

"One ring to nude them all! Er, RULE. I meant to say rule."

Well, the Witch King dies on-screen by the hand of the Lady Eowyn (Nellie Bellflower) and possibly quite horribly, but he is invisible, so I'm not sure that counts.
Girl boss.

Oh, and there is an actual dismemberment, but it's not very graphic (still difficult to think about if you're a kid, though).
For your consideration: This is it. This is the dismemberment. can you see it?

It's a pretty soft PG overall.

Where can you watch it?

Unlike "The Hobbit," as of this writing I was unable to find any streaming services that carry this version, but you can still find it on DVD if you look hard enough.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Lord of the Rings

Filthy little hobbitses! We hates it!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Lord of the Rings" (Bakshi Productions, 1978). The wizard Gandalf the Grey (voiced by employs Frodo Baggins (voiced by Christopher Guard) on a quest to rid Middle Earth of the evil magical ring found by William Squire) his uncle, Bilbo Baggins (voiced by Norman Bird). Along the way, Frodo and his servant Samwise Gamgee (voiced by Michael Scholes) befriend all manner of heroes from across the land for an epic adventure. Will the hobbits be able to overcome hardship, defeat the orcs, avoid the ghastly Nazgul, outwit the insane Gollum, and destroy the ring of power? We never find out!

Some background

This is a theatrical "animated" movie, not produced by Rankin/Bass (the studio that made 1977's "The Hobbit") but rather animator and director Ralph Bakshi, a former Terrytoons employee who is otherwise best known for his X-rated 1972 animated movie "Fritz the Cat," which was so bad that the creator of the character of Fritz the Cat (Robert Crumb) killed the character off in retaliation for the movie. This sets the tone for what we're in for.

Pictured: My face when I realized that I was going to have to watch this again.

The good

Look, this film has its fans (including the New Line Cinema "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson), and I can see why: There is craft put into many of the stills, and putting together a film (even an "animated" film) of this scale on this budget in 1978 was quite a triumph. A typical animated movie takes years to develop, and this "animated" movie went from preproduction to release in around two. Jackson even used some of Bakshi's scenes as inspiration for his own (the hobbits hiding from the black rider in the Shire is a prime example).

Looks a bit familiar.

There are voice actors even movie fans today will recognize among the cast, including the late John Hurt as Strider/Aragorn,
"Where are my paaaaants?!"

and Anthony "C-3PO" Daniels as the wood elf prince, Legolas.
"Frodo Deetoo, where are you?"

If you're a fan of this film, that's you're right and I don't want to infringe upon it, but as a person who has studied animation and a fan of the book I have to be honest with myself and I can't in good consciousness give it a pass. We good? Alright.
The establishing shots and most of the backgrounds are good. The rest of the movie...

The bad

I strongly dislike this film. One might even say that I hate it. This film tries so hard to stick to the source material and yet on so many levels just fails that I can't stand watching it. It is slightly more accurate to J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy of books than even Peter Jackson's magnum opus, but accuracy isn't always what you want in what is essentially a fantasy action film. Because of the limited budget and the director trying so hard to get the most bang for his buck, the story jumps around -- hard. I'm begging you, dear reader: DO NOT MAKE THIS YOUR INTRODUCITON TO "THE LORD OF THE RINGS." I cannot imagine attempting to follow this with no reference. The introduction uses shadows over a red canvas to tell the story of the ring before the film, which is okay, but right after that we jump to Bilbo's birthday party with no explanation.

It's like watching a play through a bloody shower curtain.

Then 17 years pass (just like the book, not the Peter Jackson film) and then Gandalf has Frodo take the ring to Rivendell while Gandalf journeys to Isengard to speak to the white wizard, Arrowman. Er, Saruman (sorry, the film seems a bit confused). Saruman very quickly and somehow very slowly turns on Gandalf (honestly I can't really describe the sensation of watching this horrible scene) and captures him.
Arrowman (in red) is not referred to as "The White," but inexplicably shouts "MANY COLORS" as he SLOWLY attacks.

The worse

The sharp-eyed among you might notice that I keep putting the word "animated" in quotations while referring to this "animated" film. This whole movie was rotoscoped, that is to say, the animators traced over live filmed actors rather than drawing characters from models. This goes a long way to explaining how this film was able to be made so quickly. The problem is, the majority of this movie isn't heroes fighting orcs or running across narrow bridges, it's people standing around and talking endlessly. When this happens, the director has the actors gesturing wildly and being more animated than normal people would be, which leads to some irritation.


Anyone who is familiar with little person actor Billy Barty (the guy was in literally hundreds of films and shows)
Bilbo Barty.

should know that he does a lot of the hobbit body work in this film, where he was instructed to clap stupidly and walk around awkwardly.
"Um... are you okay, Sam?" "YAAAY! ELVES!"

Combined with Michael Scholes… interesting voice work, it leads to what fans have come to call "Special-needs Samwise." To compound the problem, many scenes (especially scenes with multiple characters) are BARELY rotoscoped, looking more like the faintest pen work splashed over a badly filmed medieval movie.

Bakshi's penchant for swapping backgrounds behind characters on the screen might seem trippy to people who are watching the film high, but to the casual viewer it's headache-inducing and to any animators watching the film it looks like a cop-out for the bad rotoscoping. The Balrog, the most iconic and memorable monster in the entire series of books is LITERALLY just a guy wearing a lion mask, bear slippers, and paper mâché wings.
Director: "Don't damage dose wings! My daughta was up all night makin' 'em!"

It would be laughable if it wasn't so pathetic.

Ow, my ears

On top of the animation issues, the score by Leonard Rosenman is terrible. It's just random horns and orchestra music that sounds like it's from a 1950s western, completely forgettable with no coherent theme EXCEPT for when you do recognize a recurring theme (the hobbits' theme) which sounds like it was directly lifted from the credits to "Hogan's Heroes." I'm not even kidding about that.

The end question mark

You get no resolution with this film. This was obviously meant to be the first of two films, but Bakshi was so disappointed in the fan reaction that he never bothered with another. Apparently, even when New Line approached him to finish it in conjunction with the release of the Peter Jackson film he was angry that nobody told him they were making it and refused. So, Frodo and Sam meet Gollum (the worst Gollum ever put to film),

Worst. Gollum. Ever.

Gandalf saves Helm's Deep with the aid of the Rohirrim,
Quite literally the last scene in the film.

and Merry and Pippen
Pippen, Sam, and Merry. Er, Merry, Sam, and Pippen. Eh. It doesn't matter.

(who are barely in the film and nearly indistinguishable from one another -- mostly because they use the exact same animation model with different hair colors and sometimes their hair color is animated wrong) meet Treebeard, clap stupidly, and are never seen again.
Treebeard: Shows up from nowhere, goes nowhere.

Sorry, was I snoring?

The ending doesn't matter anyway for me, because I almost never see it -- I've usually nodded off before then. The third act (if you can call it that) is overloaded with barely animated men on horseback awkwardly fighting with barely animated men barely dressed as orcs. It mostly looks the same, isn't visually interesting, and by that time the story has pretty much ended.

It looks really bad when a painted over character is in front of what is essentially filmed actors.

Perfectly safe for everyone, because no one's paying attention

This film doesn't have any harsh language, no sexual content (odd, I would have expected Ralph Bakshi to have multiple shots of Galadriel's nipples showing through her dress -- again, not kidding),

"Okay Galadriel, take yer tawp awf!" "What?" "TAKE IT AAAAWF!"

but does have some violence and bloody on-screen deaths, so use caution if you watch with younger children. Just kidding -- they will have stopped paying attention and will be on their phones, tablets, or Nintendo Switches long before it gets to that point.
Again, "animated."

Where can you watch it?

This film is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, but doesn't seem to be available for streaming. I reviewed my DVD copy. If you've read the books and/or seen the Peter Jackson directed movies and you're still interested, check it out. If you haven't, please, please, please don't watch this terrible film.