Posts Tagged ‘1999’

The 13th Warrior (1999)

03/22/2011 1 comment

It is said that Beowulf is the oldest known piece of written literature. It is also said (frequently by English majors) to be mind-numbingly boring. Michael Crichton disagreed, and set out to breathe new life into the Anglo-Saxon epic poem with his novel The Eaters of the Dead. As Crichton’s popularity increased in the wake of Jurassic Park, Eaters started to get kicked around the movie studios for a while as moviemakers tried to adapt it for the big screen, until finally the script was re-edited (several times) and the title changed to The 13th Warrior. The result is… uh, this.

The 13th Warrior is a fantasy action film directed by John McTiernan and based on The Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, itself loosely based on Beowulf. It stars Antonio Banderas, Vladimir Kulich, Dennis Storhoi, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, and Omar Sharif.

In a long, proud tradition of one ambiguously brown ethnicity playing another, Antonio Banderas plays Achmed ibn Fadlan, a former court poet to the Caliph of Baghdad until an illicit dalliance with the wife of an influential noble leaves Achmed exiled reassigned as an ambassador to the Northern barbarians. As he travels with Melchisidek, he is saved from one group of barbarians (the Tartars) by the arrival of another group of barbarians (the Norsemen), who offer them refuge at their settlement on the Volga River. While they are there, the Norsemen’s new king Buliwyf is approached by a youth who requests his clan’s help: a Norse kingdom far to the north is being beseiged by an evil so terrifying that even the bravest warriors dare no speak its name. A local oracle proclaims that this mission will be successful if undertaken by thirteen warriors, the thirteenth of which must not be a Norseman. Achmed finds himself recruited for the role, fighting to gain respect and balance amongst the Norsemen and their cruder ways, while trying to unlock the secret to defeating the scourge of beastmen laying waste to the kingdom.

Antonio Banderas is a good actor. Since breaking into English-language films, he has played a mariachi gunslinger, a vampire, a swashbuckling hero, a superspy dad, an assassin, and an ogre-slaying cat. He fares relatively well here as a Muslim Arab in the land of the Vikings, and is easily the best-known name in the cast. The rest of the cast fare well as the boisterous Vikings facing off against an unknown, possibly supernatural danger, and the little historical and cultural details were nice, such as the relative scale of Achmed’s horse compared to the horses used by the Norse (leading the Norse to dub the Arabian horse a “dog”) and the use of distilled cow’s urine to treat wounds in a land where clean water is hard to come by. When Achmed prays to Allah just before the final battle, he even kicks off his boots and kneels (presumably facing the Holy Land), touching his forehead to the ground as a Muslim might pray).

However, while the acting and history are well-crafted, overall the story falls slightly flat. The concept was intriguing, with a group of Viking warriors and their “fish-out-of-water” Arab companion facing down against savage beastmen that eat human flesh, but in actual execution, this was mostly just another mindless action-adventure flick – good once, but not a lot of rewatchability.

If you’re a Michael Crichton completist or enjoy Viking adventures, The 13th Warrior might be good for a rent if you happen to see it on the shelf. Ultimately, though, it falls short of the Beowulf revamp it was meant to be. Read the book instead.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Once, the sci fi series Galaxy Quest was so popular that a rabid fanbase developed around it, with enthusiasts debating the science and theories behind the show until the cows came home. Today, hardcore fans still travel miles to attend Galaxy Quest conventions, each one itching for the chance to talk to one of their favorite stars. Some come from states away. Some come from distant countries.

And some even come from galaxies away…

Galaxy Quest is a sci fi comedy film directed by Dean Parisot, centering on the washed-up actors of a cancelled sci fi television program who discover that somebody has mistaken their adventures for documentaries. It stars Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub, and Daryl Mitchell.

It has been seventeen years since the once-popular sci fi series Galaxy Quest was cancelled, but the actors playing the crew of the U.S.S. Protector are still the target of fanatic adoration by their fans, a fact which inspires a wide spectrum of reactions from the actors themselves. Jason Nesmith (Allen) continues to soak up the attention and adoration, while Sir Alexander Dane (Rickman) hates being eternally associated with his role of Dr. Lazarus, as he started off in Shakespeare. Regrettably, none of them have had any meaningful acting roles since Galaxy Quest, and all their work these days mainly consists of convention appearances and being commercial spokespeople – all in character, of course.

During one of the loved/hated/best avoided Galaxy Quest conventions, Nesmith is approached by a group of people who identify themselves a Thermians and request his help. He happily agrees, thinking they are bringing him to an amateur filmmaking session, but he soon find out that the Thermians are genuinely aliens, using devices to make themselves appear human. They have built their entire society around the Galaxy Quest “documentaries”, and want the crew of the U.S.S. Protector to help defend them against the genocidal warlord Sarris. Nesmith does what anyone would do in this situation: He has a panic attack. Now, he and his crew find themselves having to truly assume the television roles that they have come to hate so much, and find in themselves courage and ingenuity befitting the crew of the Protector, or else Sarris is likely to kill them all.

I loved this movie. Even though I’m not as big a Trekkie as some of my friends, I enjoyed picking out the references and in-jokes to the series it was riffing on, and the whole movie works as The Magnificent Seven meets Star Trek. The concept was sound, and the story was tight, even as it freely made fun of itself throughout. Trek veterans were originally leery about this parody, but were relieved to find the “affectionate” part of “affectionate parody” was solidly in place. George Takei actually called it a “chillingly accurate documentary” – ironic, given the core plot point that the Thermians believe that Galaxy Quest was itself a documentary. The interactions of the human cast, who start out hating their tired TV roles (except for the egotistical Nesmith) and eventually end up finding the spirit of each character again, are well-scripted and well-acted. Rickman as falled Shakespearian Dane is, of course, the deadpan snarker of the group, utterly despising the rubber headpiece he wears throughout, until the moment when he makes it quite clear to Sarris’ men that Dr. Lazarus has quite a bit of Worf in his Spock. Tim Allen’s feature-length comedies have historically been rather hit or miss, but here he is dead on as a Shatner clone, and Sigourney Weaver shines as the opposite of her role in the Alien series – instead of a brunette action girl badass, her entire role in Galaxy Quest is to be the blonde token female who repeats everything the computer says. The Thermians were well-characterized as well; while they might be pitiably naive about matters of fictional entertainment, their plight appears genuine and potentially tragic, while Sarris comes off as entertainingly evil, having his own reasons for exterminating this pacifistic race but likely just doing it because he can.

The special effects are also well-done in this movie, well-crafted with a certain degree of stylistic schlock to capture this modernization of the original Star Trek, using CGI where the original might have used a guy in a shitty-looking costume, and using a guy in an awesome-looking costume where the original might have used a rubber forehead alien (and using an actual human in a rubber forehead because he was a human in a rubber forehead on the show). The replica Protector look like a Star Trek set, but then, that was the point, and it enhances the effects with CGI exterior shots that match well with the spirit of the movie.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of Star Trek or merely a casual acquaintance of the franchise, I think you’ll enjoy Galaxy Quest. I pokes fun at itself and the overall concept of the rabid fandom in ways that simultaneously honors and parodies both. By Grabthar’s Hammer, watch this movie!

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

People most likely to attract nasty spirits:

  • Young children
  • Mediums
  • Fake mediums
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is fake
  • People trying to prove the paranormal is real
  • Amateur documentarians

Three high school students are about to learn this last item the hard way…

The Blair Witch Project is an American horror film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, presented as a documentary pieced together from amateur footage. It stars Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams, with the supernatural talents of the rest of the production crew trying to freak them out.

In 1994, high school students Heather (Donahue), Josh (Leonard), and Mike (Williams) set out to film a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. Travelling to Burkittsville, Maryland, they interview the locals about the legend, and learn of a hermit named Rustin Parr, who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered seven children, afterwards claiming that the spirit of a witch who’d been hanged in the 18th century had been terrorizing him for a while, and that she’d promised to leave him alone if he killed them. Another Burkittsville woman, Mary Brown, tells them of an encounter she’d had with the Blair Witch as a young girl, describing the specter of a woman covered in coarse hair.

On day two, the young filmmakers hike into the woods in search of evidence of the Blair Witch’s existence, despite a fisherman’s warning that the woods are haunted (sh’yeah, right!). After filming a piece at Coffin Rock, where five men were ritually murdered in the 19th century, they camp for the night. The next day, despite feeling slightly lost, they hike further into the woods and encounter a cemetary with seven small cairns, one of which Josh accidentally disturbs, to be repaired by Heather. That night they hear strange noises in the dark but decide it’s just animals or something. Their tune changes the next day, however, when they realize they can’t find their way out of the woods, and now something unseen and angry seems to be stalking them…

When The Blair Witch Project was first released, it brought with it a small boatload of mythos, trying to hammer home the idea that the Blair Witch story was real and these three filmmakers were genuinely missing, presumed dead. The result of this is that the real-life Burkittsville in Maryland experienced a small influx of people looking for stories of the Blair Witch, only to be disappointed when told, nope, it was all made up for the movie. The whole movie was largely ad libbed, with the three leads being chosen for their improvisational abilities and given only a brief outline of the story ahead of time. Their “interviewees” were planted in strategic locations around the filming area, and clues to the next plot point were hidden on site, to be found with GPS tracking. And of course, in the scary woods scenes, none of the actors knew what was going to happen when; they were given brief notes for plot elements that directly involved them and that was it.

As a result, the finished film has a visceral, “you are there” feel to it, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, the building dread of being hunted by something unknown feels genuine because the actors really didn’t know that something would attack the tent at night, sending them running and screaming into the night. They didn’t know that the production crew would be making noises in the dark. Additionally, Heather’s much-parodied tearful apology and accepting responsibility for what was very likely to be a grim fate for all three of them really brought home the level of despair that the three of them were feeling by that point.

On the dark side, this was one of the first modern uses of the in-universe camera, and the result is often chaotic and slightly nauseating, particularly towards the second half of the film. Theater audiences reported motion sickness as a result of watching footage filmed by someone running their balls off while toting a handheld, and while it may have helped with the immersion, it turned off a lot of people. Additionally, you never actually see anything menacing the characters. Any manifestations of the Blair Witch or whatever the hell is chasing them always happens outside the camera’s eye. I liked this detail, as it let me use my imagination to dream up what was chasing them, but it might frustrate others.

In total, The Blair Witch Project probably boasts the most elaborate viral campaign of that decade. The mythos is well-detailed, and the sense of “what in the raging hell is out there with them” paints a terrifying picture of our heroes’ collective fate, but the filming style is dizzying and the lack of a concrete monster or known fate for the leads will turn many people off to this film. If you like scary ghost stories that let you scare yourself silly with your own imagination, though, I recommend you give it a shot.

The Matrix (1999)

02/12/2011 1 comment

The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

The Matrix is a sci fi action film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. I stars Keanu “Whoa” Reeves, Laurence “Event Horizon” Fishburne, Carrie-Anne “Memento” Moss, Joe “The Goonies” Pantoliano, and Hugo “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” Weaving.

Computer programmer Thomas A. Anderon (Reeves), a.k.a. “Neo”, leads a double life, using his hacking skills to try to learn the answer to the question “What is the Matrix?” Strange messages popping up on his computer screen lead him first to a run-in with mysterious MIB-like figures called Agents, led by Agent Smith (Weaving), and then to a group led by the enigmatic underground hacker Morpheus (Fishburne), who offers him the opportunity to learn about the Matrix. After locating and removing a tracking device inserted during what Neo had thought was a horrible nightmare, several members of Morpheus’ inner circle take Neo to meet their leader in secret. Neo is offered two pills: a blue one that would send him back to his old life, and a red one that would allow him to finish his quest. He chooses the red pill, and his perception of reality turns completely upside-down.

He finds himself in a liquid-filled pod – one of countless thousands – attached with tubes and cables to a massive mechanical structure. He is rescued by Morpheus’ team in the hovership Nebuchadnezzar and nursed into physical functionality, whereupon he learns the sickening truth: The year is closer to 2199 than 1999, and humanity has been enslaved by intelligent machines created in the early 21st century, locked away to be used as living batteries; the Matrix is a Lotus Eater program designed by the machines to keep their batteries docile. Morpheus is a member of a group whose mission it is to “unplug” people from the Matrix, freeing them from this dream world and recuiting them to fight the machines. Fortunately, his awareness of the Matrix allows him to learn how to hack the simulated reality, bending the accepted laws of physics and using the jack in the back of his head to instantly download the information he needs to take down the Matrix from within. His mission is not without hazards, however, not least of which are the Agents, sentient security programs who hunt down and eliminate redpills like Neo, and of these, the most dangerous seems to be one Agent Smith…

I admit – I was impressed by this movie, from the concept of OMG NOTHING’S REAL to HOLY SHIT I CAN HACK REALITY. The bullet time effects were effective in showing events that in real time would go by too quickly to really perceive, and the CGI helped to enhance the pseudoreality effect rather than detract from it. All the “Matrix” scenes have a slight greenish tinge to subconsciously let the viewer know that something is Ever So Slightly Not Right, but in a way that you can’t specifically put your finger on it. And the homogenous, identical Agents were effectively menacing in their anonymity and their little talent of taking over “human” programs pretty much at will, as demonstrated by the “woman in the red dress” simulation. It tries to be philosophical at times about the perception of reality, the nature of reality, and transcending mental limits, but really, you watch a movie like this to see reality stretched to its logical limits.

However, the acting at times was… meh. I’m not just talking about Keanu’s performance (though everybody does), but most of the main cast. There just didn’t seem to be enough there to make me sympathize with Morpheus’ team of reality hackers, not even “digital pimp” Mouse. Only Fishburne seemed to realize that emoting = good, and that was mainly in the scenes where he was having his brain hacked by Agents. That said, the particular brand of non-acting utilized by the Agents did help to highlight their inhumanity, and made Smith’s first steps into glitchiness subtly discernible. Weaving’s drawling American accent was menacingly artificial, and reminded me of the G-Man in the Half-Life games (probably the exact same character archetype, but anyway). In fact, it was not for a long time that I learned that Weaving was actually Australian. Props to you, Hugo.

As a philosophical discussion of the nature of reality and fate, The Matrix falls eversoslightly short, but as a flashy action movie with reality-bending and innovative (for the day) effects and stunts, this movie wins. Switch off your brain and enjoy the ride.

Audition (1999)

She is the woman of your dreams. She is a beautiful and demure woman, the flower of grace and beauty, but with a dark and tragic past. You listen sympathetically, commiserate with her pain (being a widower yourself) and when she asks you to love only her, you agree, because who wouldn’t want to love such a beautiful and delicate flower for the rest of your life?

She’s going to hold you to your word… no matter what.

Audition is a horror film by Takashi Miike, based on the Ryu Murakami novel of the same title. It stars Ryo “Suicide Club” Ishibashi, Tetsu “Border Line” Sawaki , and Eihi “Tokyo Gore Police” Shiina. It ranked at #11 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments, which is probably the main reason most people in the West have heard of it. A number of Western horror directors found it too disturbing to watch, including Eli “Cabin Fever” Roth and Rob “House of 1000 Corpses” Zombie. But if you’re feeling brave, read on.

Seven years ago, Shigeharu Aoyama’s wife died of an illness. Now, as a middle-aged widow, he is unsure of his dating prospects, despite the encouragement of his son Shigehiko (Sawaki), who intends to move out when he finishes school and does not want his father to be alone. Aoyama’s friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, a film producer, proposes holding a mock audition, encouraging young, beautiful women to audition for the “role” of Aoyama’s wife, but actually being vetted as actual marriage material; the plan is for Aoyama to marry one of the finalists. During the auditions, Aoyama’s eye is drawn to one Asami Yamazaki (Shiina), age 24, a quiet, demure, soft-spoken former ballerina who was forced to stop dancing after an injury. Aoyama is enthralled, but Yoshikawa isn’t so sure: her job history is shaky and none of the references on her resume can be found. Aoyama is blinded by his own infatuation and calls her back, and we see her sitting in an apartment on the floor next to the only two things in the apartment besides her: the ringing telephone, and a lumpy burlap sack that lurches across the room as the phone rings. When she finally answers, Asami confesses that she didn’t expect him to call back. They begin dating, and he learns of her tragic past: she was physically and sexually abused by her stepfather, leaving scars that remain to this day, as she shows him. She asks him if he will love only her, and the infatuated Aoyama tells her he will, and they make love.

The next day she vanishes without a trace. Aoyama, using her resume, tries to track her down. He visits the ballet studio where she supposedly trained for 12 years, finding only a disabled old manin a wheel chair (who caused the scars on Asami’s legs). He visits the bar where Asami worked, only to find it had been closed for a year because the manager, the wife of a record producer, was found dismembered there. Amid the mess police found three extra fingers, an extra ear, and an extra tongue. Meanwhile, Asami is doing her own research, and she doesn’t like what she finds at all: an old photo of Aoyama’s dead wife prominently displayed on his desk. Aoyama is going to learn the dark side of an abusive childhood, and it isn’t going to involve rescuing her from her demons…

Not being familiar with Miike’s work when I first heard about this movie, I didn’t know what to expect when I rented Audition from Netflix, except for the infamous ending sequence. It starts off deceptively tame, as a very sweet and heartwarming romantic comedy, but even knowing how badly it would go didn’t prepare me for how gleefully psychotic Asami would turn. Fatal Attraction? Please. Alex Forrest is an amateur. Asami was giggling as she tortured Aoyama. Giggling. The Joker doesn’t even giggle like that. And if earlier scenes are any indication, she intended Aoyama to remain alive afterward, helpless and mutilated, totally dependent on her for everything. I bet none of you had exes quite that far around the bend. The violence is completely unflinching and unmerciful, involving muscle relaxant, acupuncture needles, and razor wire used in combinations that are likely to make you clench in sympathy.

I would call this a stealth horror movie. If you knew nothing about the movie going in, you would see nothing in the first two thirds to indicate what the last third would be like. I had never even heard of Takashi Miike before 100 Scariest, so afterwards I looked up some of his other stuff (which I haven’t seen yet). Apparently this guy has been compared to Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, as well as over the top violence and gorn. In other words, not an ideal date movie unless your SO is similarly minded and, you know, not secretly a psycho.