MCC Home Video Scorecard #3: Histories Rewritten
November 6, 2014 2 Comments
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s me jotting down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home. In this batch: an expensive tale about Massive Explosions of the Oooold West; an epic from the end of China’s Warring States period; a World War II short story about the time they almost killed Hitler; and an animated sort-of adaptation of a famous novel about an honorary teen pirate.
* Treasure Planet: For several years Walt Disney animated films lost their automatic-theater-viewing status in our household, and it’s taken years for me to backtrack and catch up. The most expensive-looking one we missed was this colorful Treasure Island reboot that reimagines Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate classic in a sci-fi milieu. That means we’re treated to cutting-edge, forward-thinking, state-of-the-art literary innovations like space pirates, space whales, space barnacles, space chores, space hurricanes, space skateboarding, space ’90s-magazine haircuts, and space flatulence. Of course there are space robots, one of whom is Martin Short at his most caffeinated, and much of the space soundtrack is interrupted by original acoustic-guitar songs from Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, who are not of space.
Short version of plot: our young space hero Joseph Gordon-Levitt defies his space mom Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne, The McCarthys)and ventures into space adventure with space traveler Emma Thompson and his robot sidekick David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), running to and from space pirates voiced by the likes of Michael Wincott (Alien Resurrection, Strange Days) and a bunch of other space guys I didn’t recognize who were probably all space Broadway veterans. Perhaps updating ancient books for modern audiences is one way to get kids more excited about reading (I’d be surprised if it worked), but Treasure Planet also suffers in hindsight as one of Disney’s early efforts in transitioning from old-school hand-drawn animation to shiny CG renderings. The characters sport traditional Disney looks, but their computer-borne ships and backdrops haven’t aged well, especially on the Blu-ray edition that exacerbates the differences between media all the more. The most glaring cracks in the seams come during scenes in which the Martin Short-bot romps through piles of coins and gems that look about as realistic and artful as Candy Crush Saga.
* Hero: Jet Li stars in his own version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the form of a Chinese historical saga with wire-fu, bending swords, majestic cinematography, and great moments in Chinese patriotism. Set near the end of the Warring States period, Jet Li’s nameless character seeks revenge against the Qin emperor, but to reach him he’ll have to duel through the likes of Tony Leung (Hard Boiled, Infernal Affairs), Donnie Yen (Ip Man, Blade II), Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Maggie Cheung (Supercop).
I thought Crouching Tiger had more convincing flying effects. Scenes with thousands of Hollywood-standard CG flying arrows didn’t do much for me. I needed notecards to keep track of the flashbacks within flashbacks, some of which were lies. Eventually, Hero dictated better terms on other fronts, with more emotionally invested swordfights and not nearly as many Lord of the Rings CG army wars as I dreaded there would be. While Jet Li is fine as a leading man with torn loyalties, Best of Show goes to Donnie Yen as a wanted combatant whose noble intentions ultimately lead him to believe that for the Greater Good, some things are more important than one woman’s love.
* Valkyrie: In which Bryan Singer, the director of three X-Men films and one DC film, settles down to tell the daring true story of a onetime failed plot between high-ranking Germans to kill Hitler so the Allies wouldn’t have to. An opening sequence shifts the entire film smoothly from all-German dialogue into an all-Engish artifice that spares Tom Cruise the trouble of gouging our ears with a harsh fake accent. The who’s-who of famous names joining him on the right side of humanity, albeit on history’s losing side, include Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Kevin McNally, and Game of Thrones‘ Carice van Houten as the perfunctory wife. Other villains and bodies along the way include Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, and Thomas Kretschmann, who plays 95% of all German characters in Hollywood movies. The second half of the film contains all the best scenes, but the first half is like a dry History Channel special that’s required expository viewing before you can graduate to the dramatic, suspenseful portions, as well as the inevitable unhappy ending that winds its way through the subsequent executions like boxes on a checklist. Unfortunately they don’t lead to much of an epilogue beyond, “And then Hitler died later anyway. The End.”
* The Lone Ranger: I only watched because it was on Encore On Demand, it was Halloween night, and I wanted a movie that could withstand constant trick-or-treater interruptions without irritating me if I missed too many scenes. Thanks to our freezing weather and pitiful turnout, I wasn’t interrupted as much as I’d hoped. It’s not a great film, but I didn’t think it was the F-minus-minus offense that all the sneering internets insisted was the case. Honestly, the movie wouldn’t have drawn nearly as much flak if they’d called it anything but The Lone Ranger. The original masked man wasn’t about being morally conflicted, or struggling with whether or not to kill, or much in the way of antihero shenanigans. Despite his ostensible outlaw status, the version my generation vaguely knows from our aging memories was a bona fide Good Guy, and I could completely understand anyone who cherishes that version being annoyed by this clichéd, grim-‘n’-gritty, summer-blockbuster overhaul. If this had been called Walt Disney’s The Spookity Sheriff, I bet the Tomatometer rating would’ve been at least five percent higher.
Even ignoring the title, the film was popcorn-level serviceable at best — basically, transplant a differently painted, less talkative Captain Jack Sparrow and Armie Hammer’s version of Will Turner to the Wild West, forget to add any lively supporting characters, make sure there are EXPLOSIONS, and presto. Reliable villain William Fichtner adds yet another despicable villain to his resumé; Tom Wilkinson (him again!) isn’t much nicer here than he was in WWII; Barry Pepper plays a slightly different Southern shooter than he did in Saving Private Ryan; Iron Man 3‘s Extremis henchman James Badge Dale is the Ranger’s saintly brother, buried under typical Wild West grime (others have theirs laid on so thick that they’re a few shades away from blackface). Blink and you’ll miss old-time movie guy Rance Howard briefly as an engineer. Representing for the women are Helena Bonham Carter as a nearly superfluous madam with a deadly porcelain leg, and Luther‘s Ruth Wilson reduced to a sometimes capable damsel-in-distress whom I really wish had turned back into mad Alice Morgan and begun stabbing her way out of this overblown spectacle full of crashing trains, CG horses, and an all-powerful Johnny Depp who appears to have beamed in from a completely different oddball indie film of his own making.
For those who track such things: yes, there’s a long, quiet scene during the Lone Ranger end credits: decades after all the main action has run its course, an elderly warrior walks home after work through the endless desert in his nicest suit.