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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Peter Pan

Title: Peter Pan

Year of Release: 1953

Date Viewed: November 28th, 2010

MPAA Rating: G

Sunday the 28th was an unusual day. In the morning, I caught up with the latest Hawaii Five-O episodes. Then I treated myself to James Cameron's Aliens in the afternoon. After dinner, there came primetime entertainment. A new episode of Family Guy, a new episode of The Walking Dead and then finally Disney's Peter Pan. It was like the couch potato's equivalent of hitting the cycle.

Peter Pan was and still remains one of my favorite animated Disney films, even if it's not necessarily the best one. Its short running time was an encouraging factor in the decision to give it a watch. I wasn't likely to fall asleep before the end. Although my perception has changed tune over the years, the fun factor has never faded. It's a defining product for the Walt Disney company that demonstrates the best and the worst they have to offer.

For those that may be unfamiliar with the Peter Pan story.....well first off, I feel sorry for you. But here's a brief synopsis so you can see what you've been missing and so I won't waste too much time with the already informed.

There's a place called Neverland where nobody ever grows up. Neverland's forever young resident hero Peter Pan spends his time flying around and fighting pirates. One day, he takes a group of London kids to Neverland so that they won't have to grow up. They fight pirates and have a blast. Then the siblings return to London because they realize life is more meaningful there.

Brief enough? Clear enough? Yes? Good. On we go!

Through countless adaptations of books, stage and screen, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan story has delighted generations of children around the world. It is presented here in its most innocent form. Although the Disney studio has shown that it's not afraid to explore the dark nature of life, this offering is solely for laughs. Serious drama is nowhere to be found. Perilous situations exist only as set-ups for various confrontations. There is nothing grander at stake than just the standard "good versus evil."

Looking back at this movie as a more seasoned film buff, the material gave me some moments of shock that were never experienced during childhood. The movie is a product of its era, during a time when entertainment was much less politically correct. Stereotypical Native Americans with deep voices and stiff speech patterns only have two things on their minds; war and smoking. The pirates like to drink rum. (Today, the MPAA would penalize for that.) And of course, it wouldn't be the 1950's without a little sexism. Wendy is slower than all the boys, is horrified about everything and talks way too much; an attribute she naively admits to.

Here's another thing that I didn't realize at first. There are almost no likable characters. Tinkerbelle and Captain Hook are the only necessary antagonists. The rest grate on my nerves in different ways. Peter Pan for instance is like that guy in high school that all the nerds hate. The guy that is more athletic than you and enjoys showing off. The guy that's involved in every extracurricular activity and still manages to be a straight-A student. The guy that dates the most gorgeous girl in school. You get the idea. He has it all and we want it too. His runaway orphan followers look to him as their mentor, but cower in the face of danger. Just like the people that hang around that high school jock. Although it's not a far stretch from J.M. Barrie's vision, even Walt Disney himself has expressed remorse over Peter Pan's portrayal.

Enough bitterness. On to the good stuff.

There is one standout contribution to the movie that makes it a winner for me. Hans Conried's performance as Captain Hook. Virtually every line of dialog that came out of his mouth left me in stitches because of his over-the-top delivery. He must have been bouncing off the walls of the recording booth. Conried's Hook belongs in the same club with Chris Farley and Denzel Washington as the people that can make me laugh by acting angry. Conried also voices Wendy's father with equally amusing melodrama, continuing the long-running tradition of casting the same actor in both roles.

The other best moments of entertainment come from the battle scenes. They follow the Looney Tunes rules of physics. Someone can walk off the edge of a cliff but not actually fall until he realizes he's in danger. Someone with a six inch dagger has an equal chance against someone with a longsword, free of risk from having a limb sliced off. But it's a cartoon, right? Why should we be surprised? Well, if you look closely enough, most other Disney animated movies tended to get serious by the third act. Those climatic chapters came with more realistic conflict and action. This movie's all-out comedic approach is welcome, albeit a bit puzzling when you look at the comparisons.

The opening musical numbers are quiet and effective in soothing you into the wondrous imagination of Neverland. The middle numbers are more playful and are prone to getting implanted in your brain for weeks on end. The last few songs are a little less inspired, but mercifully kept short to allow the final conflict to be drawn out longer.

How delightful it was to discover that Disney's Peter Pan is still fun to watch after fifty-seven years of existence. Crafting the villains to be more entertaining than the heroes helps the movie stand out amongst the animation studio's other projects. Advocates of social progress may be horrified at how certain characters are presented. But they do not harm the moments of sheer joy that come with remembering what it was like to have a child's imagination; an effect that appears in every telling of J.M. Barrie's story.

Rating: 7

Friday, December 3, 2010


Title: Aliens

Year of Release: 1986

Date Viewed: November 18th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

How do you make a story about a dangerous alien even more exciting? Add more aliens, of course.

James Cameron takes over directing duties from Ridley Scott in this sequel to the blockbuster hit Alien. Instead of slapping on a tacky catchphrase title to differentiate itself from the original, they simply added an "s". That's all the foreshadowing you need. Brilliant.

This story takes place fifty-seven years after the events of the first film. But in the mind of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), it is tomorrow. The sole survivor of the Nostromo spaceship incident, Ripley awakens from cryogenic sleep to an unfamiliar world. The world doesn't know what to make of her either. When questioned about the incident, Ripley explains the outrageous truth to the company that had employed her. Nobody is convinced because all evidence of the alien stowaway that killed her comrades was destroyed along with the ship. Furthermore, the planet that was inhabited by the alien species (now known as LV-426) had been undergoing colonization for the past thirty years. No alien activity had ever been reported. Deemed as mentally unstable and unfit for her former job of piloting, Ripley is relegated to working with forklifts aboard Gateway Station, the space facility that had rescued her.

She soon receives an unexpected visit from Marine representatives. Communication with the LV-426 colony had been lost. Fearing that a tragedy had occurred, Ripley is offered the opportunity to accompany a military squad to investigate the planet. She agrees to act as a consultant for the mission in return for the reinstatement of her prior duties. Successful completion could also mean some much needed peace to the reoccurring nightmares from past trauma.

Ripley's new comrades may have bigger weapons, but they have smaller brains. They act more like new recruits showing off for their college fraternity instead of soldiers. I guess the idea was for us to grow annoyed enough with their immaturity that we don't mind so much when they are inevitably killed off. Two things are wrong with that. It's the opposite direction taken by the original Alien, where every human casualty was a felt loss. Also, the characters are too obnoxious for the viewer. Since all the soldiers are given the same personality, I didn't care enough to see them live or hate anyone enough to want them dead.

On the flip side, there are two superbly written characters here. Ripley and franchise newcomer Rebecca "Newt" Jorden (Carrie Henn in her only acting role). The movie's greatest pleasure is witnessing Ripley's transition from cookie-cutter damsel in distress to a full fledged selfless hero. The much ballyhooed alien foes actually take a backseat to this character development drama. When Ripley's finest moment happens during the movie's final act, I was more than ready to cheer her on. The story reason for the evolution is Ripley's relationship to Newt. Newt is an eleven year old girl and part of a family that lived on the LV-426 colony before the aliens wiped everyone out. She is the sole survivor of a traumatic event with no family left in her life, the same situation Ripley is struggling with. This story angle is believable in both its inception and execution.

A franchise like this cannot afford to deviate from its ironclad humans versus aliens set up. To make the film his own, James Cameron followed the "bigger is better" philosophy. The production values increased and so did the body count. Cameron is less interested in frightening his audience as he is with merely thrilling them. He does this with ease. Yet it was the little things that made Ridley Scott's Alien truly memorable. Sure, it's fun to see slimy aliens get blasted away from high-tech gunfire. But it comes at the cost of the added mystery of the enemies' whereabouts. Rather than having self-standing drama, this movie turns to the perilous situations for the drama. It's a change that has divided opinion over which offering is preferable.

The part that doesn't deserve much debate is the rewarding conclusion. By this time, Ripley earns self respect, Newt has a new reason for hope and the alien creatures have one last adrenaline rush to unleash upon the audience. It's the sort of stuff that Cameron prides himself on, as he should.

Aliens was perfect for its time. And based on other written reactions, it's still perfect for a lot of people. Although I found the writing to be inconsistent in quality, the rest hits the bullseye. I can't imagine anyone except for the most snobbish of critics to entirely denounce this movie.

Rating: 7

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

DOA: Dead or Alive

Title: DOA: Dead or Alive

Year of Release: 2006

Date Viewed: November 17th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

"Princess Kasumi, your brother is dead. Your destiny is to lead your people."

Those are the first lines spoken in the movie. My reaction was laughter. Talk about cutting right to the chase. Since the movie wasted absolutely no time in getting to the point, I was half expecting the next lines to be "I have avenged my brother. My people are safe again." Cue the end credits.

DOA doesn't care much about its story. I wish it had. Movie studios don't seem to notice or care that modern videogames contain rich art, including well thought-out storylines. The DOA games provided every playable character with a backstory; something that could be further expanded upon through sequels or spinoff projects. This live action adaptation was a great opportunity to present these tales on the grandest stage; the big cinematic screen. Instead, the studio decided to go a different route. Amplify the campiness and hire Corey Yuen to direct enough over-the-top fighting scenes to fill the traditional ninety minute running time. Despite the disappointment over my ideals not being met, I didn't really mind too much since I enjoy over-the-top action as much as anyone could. So instead of rich art, I was treated to mild enjoyment of a somewhat lazy effort.

To my surprise, there were actually a lot of things accurately adapted from the game. It's probably the result of seasoned game-to-film director Paul W.S. Anderson serving as a producer. The jury is still out on whether or not this guy is a good filmmaker. But it's clear that he at least respects videogames enough to possess the right amount of general knowledge to give fans plenty of familiarity comfort.

Dead or Alive is the name of an invitational martial arts tournament held on a remote island. A huge cash prize is promised for the winner. Many of the character backstories are unaltered from their original vision. Ayane is chasing Kasumi for assassination. Zack is a cocky athlete with bad hair that overestimates his ability to woo the ladies. Bass and Tina are a father/daughter pro wrestling tag team. Other characters like Gen Fu and Brad Wong are included but dismissed early on; victims of first round elimination never to be heard from again. I was also pleased to see a wise selection of fight arenas. Locations like the beach and the castle balcony are taken straight out of the game with accurate real world dimensions.

Only a few characters and situations are sidetracked from their origins. Helena is not a French opera singer in this story. She is relegated to the one-dimensional ditsy stereotype role that should have already been filled by Tina. There is a non-secret twist in the story that sets up a subplot for the villain. The island's ruler, Donovan (Eric Roberts), is the mastermind behind the tournament. Unbeknownst to the contestants, they have all been injected with an information gathering nanobot that tracks every movement. As the contestants progress through the tournament, data of their fight patterns are recorded into Donovan's new technology that will allow him to emulate and master all the fighting techniques of his subjects. When optimized, his product is planned to be sold to the world black market, allowing other warlords the potential for increased stronghold in their respective areas.

The early fight scenes are unsatisfactory. The style certainly fits the mood. That's not the problem. Flashy exaggerated strikes followed by crowd pleasing finishing moves is the way to go. Gravity laws do not apply here and that's perfectly okay. However, there is no rhythm or flow to the action. Fighting videogames are usually sloppy, but they still show more consistency than what Yuen's choreographers offer here. The technique is reminiscent of an ESPN highlight reel. It tries too hard to please with the cool looking stuff while failing to generate excitement from conflict. For fight scenes to be truly exhilarating, they need to be shown in real time or at least realistic time. Otherwise it's just noisy fireworks without the eye candy. One likely reason for this choice in presentation could be compensation for the lack of athletic talent. Acquiring actors with attractive bodies was higher on the priority list than having experienced martial arts students. It's understandable that the movie needed to stray away from authentic action. But in this case, more time is spent dancing around the action to cover up for the actors' faults. Too much CGI and wires ruin the illusion of battle. The only female actress that seemed tailor made for the challenge was Sarah Carter (Helena), who can proudly claim to have the best fight scene in the movie; a gauntlet sword battle against a few dozen of Donovan's henchmen. By the time the third act rolls around, the action is given room to breathe, somewhat redeeming the earlier mistakes.

The DOA games have only been half serious with the rest firmly tongue-in-cheek. The movie neglects the former and embraces the latter. And I have to admit, the results are smile-inducing for weird folks like myself. There is something oddly amusing about watching an attractive lady ask her foe to snap up her bra just before knocking him unconscious. A standout casting choice is Kevin Nash in the role of the buff wrestler Bass. His natural comedic timing has enough power to make a lame scene work. On his way to battle his daughter Tina in an elimination bracket, he discovers her sleeping in the same bed as Christie, out of context. His reaction is gold.

It's too bad I can't say the same for my own reactions toward this mixed bag. On one hand, there is enough quantity of chop-socky fun to satisfy the part of us that hasn't yet grown out of Saturday morning cartoons. On the other hand, the material suffers from its own shallow approach, surely disappointing the strong wings of the fanbase. The movie isn't meant to be taken seriously, but that doesn't mean the production deserved the same treatment.

Rating: 5