A Movie A Day #285: Bless The Child (2000, directed by Chuck Russell)


Kim Basinger is Maggie, a nurse who has adopted her autistic niece, Cody.  Her sister, Jenna (Angela Bettis), used to be a junkie but now she has cleaned up her act and married a former-child star-turned-cult leader, Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell).  Because Jenna’s daughter has supernatural powers and Eric is a Satanist, they want the little girl back.  Christina Ricci is Cheri, a junkie goth who used to be a member of the cult and who tries to warn Maggie before getting her head chopped off.  Jimmy Smits is John Travis, the FBI agent who helps Maggie out when Jenna and Eric kidnap Cody.  Mostly, though, he’s just Jimmy Smits, a TV actor who looks out of place whenever he appears in a movie.

Bless the Child was one of two movies that Kim Basinger made after winning an Oscar for L.A. Confidential.  She also made I Dreamed Of Africa, which probably did the most damage to her career but the box office and critical failure of Bless The Child probably did not help either.  Bless The Child was an overlong rip-off of The Omen films.  The only suspense is whether Cody is the antichrist or the reborn messiah.  Basinger and Jimmy Smits both look lost amid all the theological chaos raging around them.  Even Christina Ricci is wasted in a role that could have been played by anyone willing to dye her hair black.

One final note: Rufus Sewell is not terrible in Bless The Child, even if the majority of his lines sound more appropriate for Darth Vader than a former child actor.  (He even tells Maggie to feel the hate growing inside of her, like Vader trying to draw Luke over to the dark side.)  Sewell is still a busy actor but it seems like he has never really gotten his due in Hollywood.  Most of the good Rufus Sewell roles now seem to go to Jude Law.

A Movie A Day #263: Running Scared (1986, directed by Peter Hyams)


Running Scared is weird but good.

Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines!) and Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal!!!) are two tough detectives in Chicago.  All they want to do is three things: retire, open a bar in Florida, and bust Chicago’s most ruthless drug dealer, Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits).  Their captain (Dan Hedaya) wants them to leave for Florida as soon as possible but they are determined to take down Julio first.’

There are two strange things about this otherwise formulaic crime film.  First off, the two tough cops are played by Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, director Peter Hyams realized that Running Scared‘s plot was nothing special so he decided that the only way to make the movie stand out was by doing it “with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie.”  The other strange thing is that Hyams’s gambit worked.  Gregory Hines may have been best known as a dancer and Billy Crystal as a comedian but both of them were surprisingly believable as Chicago cops.  Running Scared is actually one of Billy Crystal’s best performances.  For once, he’s believable as being someone other than a version of himself.  Even his frequent one liners seem like something that a detective would say instead of Crystal recycling punch lines from his act.  Whether they are chasing down perps and firing their guns at a moving vehicle, Hines and Crystal are never less than credible as action stars.  Lorenzo Lamas has got nothing on the team of Hines and Crystal.

Predictable though it may be, Running Scared is one of the better late 80s cop films.  The action scenes are exciting and Hyams does a good job capturing the grittiness of Chicago.  Jimmy Smits is a good villain and Joe Pantoliano, Steven Bauer, and Jon Gries all shine in supporting roles.  Keep an eye out for the always underrated Darlanne Fluegel, playing Danny’s ex-wife.

No Ewoks, No Jar Jar: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, directed by Gareth Edwards)


rogue_one_a_star_wars_story_posterA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The evil Galactic Empire spent what had to be billions of Imperial credits to build the greatest weapon in the universe.  It was known as the Death Star and it housed a laser so powerful that it could blow up a planet with just one shot.  And yet, for all the effort and all the years that were spent building it, the Death Star had one glaring vulnerability, an exposed exhaust valve that the Rebel Alliance twice used to the destroy it.

For years, fanboys debated why the Empire would go to the trouble to build a super weapon with such an obvious design flaw.  I have to admit that I was often one of them.  No one else seemed to care but, to us, this was a huge deal.  If the Empire could figure out how to blow up a planet with one super laser, why couldn’t they figure out how to protect that one valve?

Now, thanks to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, we have an answer.  We not only know why that valve was there but we also know what was meant in New Hope when the rebel general said that the plans to the Death Star had been stolen at great cost.

Rogue One is a fan’s dream, one that answers questions while expanding on the Star Wars mythology.  Unlike the previous prequels, it adds to the story without cheapening the original films.  In fact, of all the Star Wars films, Rogue One is the first to make the Death Star into a believable weapon of mass destruction.  When it appears over one planet, it blots out the sun.  When it blows up a rebel base, we see the destruction from inside the base instead of observing it from the safety of Death Star.  Director Gareth Evans does for the Death Star what he previously did for Godzilla.

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Unfortunately, like Godzilla, the action and the special effects in Rogue One are usually more interesting than any of the film’s characters.  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Alan Tudyk, and Riz Ahmed are all good actors but they’re all playing underwritten parts.  No one steps up like Harrison Ford did in the original trilogy.  Commander Kennec, played by Ben Mendelsohn, has a little more depth than the typical Imperial villain but, for better or worse, the film’s most memorable performances come from a CGI Peter Cushing and James Earl Jones providing the voice of Darth Vader.

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Despite the underwritten characters, Rogue One is still the best Star Wars film since Empire Strikes Back, a return to the grittiness, the thrilling action, and the awe of discovering new worlds that distinguished the first two movies.  For once, a Star Wars film seems to have more on its mind than just selling toys.  Though we already know what is ultimately going to happen to the Death Star at the end of New Hope, Rogue One is a frequently downbeat film.  There are no Ewoks and, to great relief and rejoicing, Jar Jar is never seen.  The closest that Rogue One gets to comic relief is Alan Tudyk providing the voice of a cynical robot.  The emphasis is on the horrors of war and even the rebels are troubled by some of the things that they have done.  For once, the Rebel Alliance actually feels like a rebellion and the evil of the Empire feels real instead of cartoonish.

Rogue One is projected to be the first of many “Star Wars stories,” stand-alone film that will expand the universe and hopefully clarify some of the points that were left unclear by the original trilogy.  I think it’s going to be very successful very Disney.  I’m just dreading the inevitable Jar Jar origin story.

 

Sci-Fi Review: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005, directed by George Lucas)


Star_Wars_Episode_III_Revenge_of_the_Sith_posterThe year 2005 was a dark time to be a fan of Star Wars.

The first two parts of the highly anticipated prequel trilogy had been released and had left fans feeling as if millions of voices had cried out in terror and suddenly been silenced.  No sooner had fans started to recover from the trauma of The Phantom Menace then Attack of the Clones was unleashed and they were stunned to learn that a movie could be even more pointless than The Phantom Menace.

The summer of 2005 promised the release of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith.  Fans were excited because they knew that Anakin Skywalker would finally be transformed into Darth Vader but they also knew that he would still be played by Hayden Christensen.  Many of us who went to see the movie on its opening weekend did so with low expectations and mixed feelings.

“WAR!” the opening title crawl of Revenge of the Sith declared, as if it was trying to reassure those of us in the audience that it would not be another boring Star Wars prequel.  There was nothing in the crawl about taxation or trade routes.  Instead, it was all about how the Galactic Republic was at war with separatists and how Chancellor Palpatine was being held prisoner by General Grievous.  After an exciting battle on Grievous’s flagship, Anakin not only rescued Palpatine but also decapitated Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku, despite the fact that Dooku had surrendered and was unarmed.  That’s when those of us watching knew that Revenge of the Sith was not going to be like the other two prequels.  Revenge of the Sith was going to be darker and edgier and not just for kids.  A headless Count Dooku action figure would not be sold at your local toy store.

Looking back, it is easy to forget how relieved many of us were that Revenge of the Sith was not terrible.  After the bitter disappointment of the first two prequels, we were happy that Jar Jar Binks only appeared during one shot towards the end of the film and he did not speak.  We were happy that Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman both finally got to give performances that justified casting actors of their caliber as Obi-Wan and Amidala.  We were happy that, since Anakin and Amidala were secretly married between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, we did not have to sit through any more scenes of them falling in love.  Many of us had found Hayden Christensen’s performance to be petulant in Attack of the Clones and, intentionally or not, Revenge of the Sith seemed to validate our suspicions by having both Yoda and Mace Windu say the same thing about Anakin.  After the embarrassment of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, this was a prequel that we felt we could get behind.

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And we were really happy with the climatic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin.  After Anakin had gone over to the dark side, he and Obi-Wan dueled on a volcanic planet.  “You were supposed to be the chosen one!” Obi-Wan shouted after chopping off Anakin’s legs.  After being left to die by Obi-Wan, Anakin was rescued by Emperor Palpatine.  It was only after being encased in that famous black armor that Palpatine told the new Darth Vader that Amidala had died.  Darth Vader’s “Nooooooooo!” would go down in history.

At the end of the film, Jimmy Smits was seen giving an infant Luke to Owen and Beru Lars and Darth Vader and the Emperor were seen standing on the bridge of an imperial ship and looking out at the skeleton of the Death Star.  For the first time since the prequels were first released, some of us applauded at the end of a Star Wars film.

When, ten years later, I rewatched Revenge of the Sith for the first time in a long while, my immediate impression was that it was nowhere close to being as good as I remembered.  Without a doubt, it was still the best of the prequels but how much was that really saying?  Of all the prequels, it came the closest to capturing the sense of awe and excitement that made the original trilogy (even Return of the Jedi) so entertaining but, at the same time, it still had many of the same flaws that afflicted Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.  Hayden Christensen was as stiff and inexpressive as ever, as was George Lucas’s dialogue.  (When Obi-Wan tells Anakin that Palpatine is evil, Anakin actually replies, “From my point of view, the Jedis are evil!”  He shouts this in the middle of a light saber duel.)  Even the movie’s most shocking moment, when Anakin murdered a group of children, was no longer effective because everyone in the movie insisted on calling the children “younglings.”

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Throughout the entire prequel ordeal, George Lucas would insist that it was necessary to see all three of the prequels to really understand the story he was trying to tell and how it fit in with the original trilogy.  However, of all the prequels, Revenge of the Sith is the only one that feels as if it adds anything to what we had already learned from watching the original trilogy.  Nor is there anything to be gained from having seen the first two prequels before watching Revenge of the Sith for the first time.  The main accomplishment of Revenge of the Sith was to prove that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were entirely unnecessary.  (Revenge of the Sith actually works better if you have never seen Phantom Menace because there is no way that the Anakin played by Jake Lloyd could have grown up to be the Anakin played by Hayden Christensen.)

Why, when we originally watched Revenge of the Sith, did so many of us think that it was so much better than it actually was?

In the year 2005, we were just happy to have a Star Wars film that did not totally suck.

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