February 15, 2013

willowThe advance buzz on George Lucas’s Willow has been that the film is “soft”; not quite strong enough, for instance, to open opposite Rambo III and Crocodile Dundee II (a pair of blockbusters that bow next Wednesday). The industry word was the Lucas’s “Star Wars with midgets” was shaping up as a possible summer stiff.

Some of this, I think, is wishful thinking from those envious of Lucas’s incredible success. The creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules, and he’s taken considerable blame for supposedly lowering the collective IQ of the movie-going public by dishing up his magical fantasies.

Willow, it turns out, is neither Lucas’s magnum opus nor his giant stumble. It’s simply an entertaining movie, heavily formulaic but a good bit of fun. Lucas, who takes executive producer and story credit, has fashioned a straightforward fantasia that borrows from himself and others. This is not, regrettably, a major step forward for him, but neither is it a sin.

The major inspirational sources are the sword-and-sorcery genre, a la Lord of the Rings, and the Japanese samurai movie. The world of Willow is full of evil queens, talking animals, magical dwarfs, and big two-headed monsters that live in moats. The matter at hand is a baby, an infant princess prophesied to save her kingdom, who needs to be transported away from the evil queen and toward safety.

By a complicated set of reasons, the job falls to a farmer named Willow (Warwick Davis), one of the little people who live in a peaceful country. In getting the child away from Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), Willow naturally goes through much adventure, aided along the way by an irresponsible warrior (Val Kilmer), a sorceress who looks like a squirrel, and two rowdy Lilliputian creatures called Brownies, who inexplicably (but amusingly) speak with French accents.

The movie is full of the expected high-throttle sequences, including a rather nifty sled chase in the snow, a full-tilt carriage ride, and two (count ’em) castle stormings. (It is also marked by occasionally awe-inspiring special effects, produced by Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.) To all of this, director Ron Howard brings his customary good humor; he’s surely responsible for many of the throwaway sight gags and sardonic line readings.

Some things seem compromised by their familiarity. Lucas uses what has worked for him in the past, and some sequences correspond exactly to their counterparts in other Lucas films. As do the heroes: Willow is a shorter version of good Luke Skywalker, the pretty princess (Joanne Whalley) is a Princess Leia on the wrong side, and Val Kilmer’s wise-cracking warrior is out of the Han Solo mold.

Kilmer has also clearly fashioned his performance—hair, movements, expressions—on Toshiro Mifune, one of the world’s greatest action stars. And the final battle, fought in a driving rain, invites comparison to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Lucas is a longtime Kurosawa admirer), though Willow suffers by the measurement.

The question is, does Lucas keep making the same movie because he’s obsessed by similar stories, or because he wants to mine a profitable formula? Either way, and as enjoyable as Willow is, this particular Lucas method seems to have run its course.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Haven’t seen it since, but this all sounds about right. How innocently promising the career of Val Kilmer seemed at the time—and Ron Howard’s too, come to think of it.


January 10, 2012

Labyrinth of hair: David Bowie

Near the beginning of Labyrinth, an adolescent girl given to flights of fancy is stuck baby-sitting her baby brother. As he wails into the night, she tries telling him a fairy story; then gives up and proclaims that she wishes he would be kidnapped by goblins.

Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t make such proclamations casually. The babe is forthwith spirited away by ugly little gnomes, who take the kid to the castle located in Goblin City in the heart of a huge, apparently unsolvable labyrinth.

The rest of the movie is the girl’s quest to retrieve her brother, by passing through a maze of false walls, trap doors, and special effects.

She must also pass by a host of creatures from a menagerie concocted by Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets, who also directed the film. Henson, that is, not the Muppets.

Although newcomer Jennifer Connelly holds the screen for most of the film, and David Bowie contributes his persuasive presence (and a few songs) as the prince of the warlocks, the creatures are the true stars. Labyrinth, like Henson’s The Dark Crystal, is torn between being a real movie and being a vehicle for bigger, more outlandish Muppets.

It’s fairly successful either way. The beasts include a goblin smitten with Connelly but beholden to Bowie; a lurching behemoth who resembles an orangutan with horns; a perky one-eyed terrier who carries on the chivalric code; various worms, birds, and creatures who play basketball with their own heads; trolls; and a guy with a peacock on his noggin.

They’re fun, although Henson doesn’t appear to be breaking any new ground, in terms of design. In fact, some of the designs and ideas are reminiscent of the work of Maurice Sendak, who is mentioned in a curious personal acknowledgment in the end credits.

Much of the fun comes from the humor with which the creatures are endowed. Henson and screenwriter Terry Jones (a Monty Python writer-performer) put a sardonic spin on much of the material, which is otherwise a familiar adventure tale of imagination, questing, and growing up.

Take the talking rocks, for instance, which warn the heroine to turn back from the castle. They don’t appreciate the derogatory comments from Connelly and her troll guide, and the rocks explain, in the stentorian voices, that they’re just doing their jobs. Can they get on with it? In rolling tones and then a milder voice: “The path you take will lead to certain destruction. Thank you very much.”

The world of the labyrinth is skillfully mounted, by Henson’s troupe and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects wizards (Lucas is the film’s executive producer). Their greatest feat: the Bog of Eternal Stench, a flatulent swamp. You can almost smell it, although even George Lucas hasn’t figured out a way to pull off this trick—not that you’d want him to, in this case.

For all the spiffy effects and breakneck pace, Labyrinth doesn’t get deeply or meaningfully into its myth, not even in the way that Lucas’s Star Wars films did. It’s an enjoyable maze to find your way through, but unlike the heroine, you never find anything at this labyrinth’s center.

First published in the Herald, June 28, 1986

Yesterday was David Bowie’s birthday—impeccable timing, right? Only a day late. I have never revisited this movie, which makes me an exception to its many fans. I have no doubt that if Labyrinth is viewed at the age of ten, it makes a lasting Ozian impression, but it never lived like that for me. Yet now I want to see it again. Damn you, Eighties website!

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

November 24, 2011

Dr. Jones and Dr. Jones: Ford and Connery

In 1981, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined their already successful talents and invented a hero to match their memories of the great breakneck cliffhangers of the 1940s. His name was Indiana Jones (played so memorably by Harrison Ford), and the film was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Ah, you’ve heard of it. This mammoth hit was followed by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, another smash. Now Lucas (as producer) and Spielberg (as director) have brought their hero back for a final go-round, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

As usual, the movie is constructed around a series of hair-raising stunts and chases. In this case, there’s a twist at the start: The curtain-raiser features not the mature Dr. Jones but an adolescent Indy (River Phoenix), a Boy Scout who stumbles across some tomb robbers and leads them on a merry chase when he snatches the artifact they’ve dug up (“This belongs in a museum!” shouts the serious lad).

This sequence is a delight, as young Indy prances about on a speeding circus train; we learn how he came to fear snakes, adopt the Stetson, and even how he acquired the scar that graces Harrison Ford’s chin. It’s a wonderful sequence, and gets the film off to a rousing start.

It also introduces the idea of Indy as someone’s son, which is taken up in more detail as we skip ahead to 1938. Dr. Jones, it seems, is the son of another Dr. Jones (Sean Connery), himself a great expert on ancient artifacts, and a somewhat distant father. But the elder Jones is in trouble. He has been searching for the Holy Grail, the most famous artifact in history, and he has vanished. Indy suspects some competing crusaders, such as the Nazis, may have kidnapped Dad when the location of the Grail was deduced.

So the adventure of The Last Crusade is twofold: find the father, and find the Grail. The quest leads from the canals of Venice to an Austrian castle to the belly of a zeppelin to a mythical Middle Eastern country. For the details, you’ll have to see the movie. I’m not about to spoil the fun.

In the most basic way, The Last Crusade delivers the goods, and a lot of it is exhilaratingly mounted by Spielberg (the script is credited to Jeffrey Boam). The production is lavish, Connery is just what one would hope, and there’s effective supporting work from Denholm Elliott and a newcomer named Alison Doody; she’s Indy’s girl.

That said, the film still has an air of redundancy. The format is essentially unchanged from the previous films, and Spielberg and Lucas seem wary of breaking out of the thrill-a-minute rhythm. I’m surprised Spielberg hasn’t wrought more emotion out of the father-son relationship; it’s supposed to be a reconciliation, but it simply doesn’t pay off effectively.

And I wonder whether Spielberg’s heart is in the boys’ adventure genre any more. He abandoned Rain Man in order to fulfill his Indy agreement with Lucas, and Spielberg has described The Last Crusade as his final film for the youth market. I suspect he has already moved on.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

So Spielberg didn’t entirely abandon the youth market, and it wasn’t even the last Indiana Jones movie. I recall Spielberg saying that the original conception was about a very shy, bookish father who was transformed by the adventure; but when they cast Connery, that idea became impossible, and the theme of the movie changed. But that original idea sounds better.

Howard the Duck

June 27, 2011

A friend of the three-foot duck hero of Howard the Duck looks him right in the bill and comments, “I’ll bet you were born from a hard-boiled egg.”

That’s the best of the movie’s duck jokes, mainly because it aptly describes the prickly waterfowl protagonist. Howard T. Duck, a Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber, is an outspoken bird given to no-nonsense jibes and haughty pronouncements.

He has a right to be perturbed. He’s sitting at home in an easy chair, pounding a brewski, when he is suddenly pulled from his duck planet to our Earth, through some sort of laser-beam, force-field thing. To make matters worse, he lands in Cleveland.

He’s befriended by a rock singer (Lea Thompson) and examined by a would-be scientist (Tim Robbins), who sees a Nobel Prize in the offing. Then Howard’s led to the man who can send him back to his home planet: the scientist (Jeffrey Jones, the slow-burning principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who built the laser-beam thing.

The first half of the film is taken up with Howard’s predictable difficulties adjusting to the human world. He tries to hold a job, demonstrates “quack fu” on those who would harass him, and dabbles in a love scene with Thompson.

The movie then shifts gears, into an extended chase, complicated by a laser-beam malfunction that zaps a dark overlord of the universe into Jones’ body. This prompts a bunch of spectacular special effects, as Jones changes shape and creates mayhem around him, and Howard and his friends try to save the world from this alien menace.

All these special effects, and the creation of Howard himself, come to us through the wizardry of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (Lucas is also the film’s executive producer). It’s all first-class work. Howard, primarily embodied by Ed Gale, but credited to a host of actors and technicians, is every bit as expressive and complex a piece of machinery as E.T.

Lucas’s old film-school chums, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, teamed as director and producer, respectively, and wrote the script. The scripts they’ve written for Lucas—American Graffiti and Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom—were fine, but the movies they’ve made as a director-producer combo have been less impressive; French Postcards went nowhere, and Best Defense was perhaps the worst major-studio comedy of the last decade.

They’ve fared better with Howard, although the film has its problems. The schizophrenic structure, for starters, plus the dumb, illogical opening scene, in which Howard’s planet is seen as a collection of duck variations on Earth products (some easy laughs, but nonsensical).

The funniest scene takes place in a roadside diner, where Jones is transforming into the dark overlord, hissing malevolent pronouncements about the impending doom of the Earth. Naturally, a waitress mistakes him for a TV evangelist.

Most important, Huyck and Katz succeed in making Howard an unsentimental duck, and that’s the key to enjoying the film. Rather than being overly cutesy, he retains his obstreperous edge. It’s not surprising; if you had to endure this many duck jokes, you’d be a fowl mood too.


First published in the Herald, August 5, 1986

Before the movie came out there was no hint its title would become synonymous with Worst Movies of All Time, although that is quickly (almost within a week or so) what happened. Mostly that’s because the movie flopped, and also because the title sounded stupid to most people, therefore it must be a terrible film. But seriously, Howard the Duck looks like Grand Illusion compared to Best Defense, the Huyck-Katz opus I cite here. (I actually have a small residual fondness for the engagingly cast French Postcards, one of those semester-in-Europe movies.) Howard the Duck isn’t very good, but it’s a long way from the bottom. Usage footnote: This was back when I still used “schizophrenic” in the lazy old way that people use it to mean “split personality.” That’s not what it means, so I don’t use it like that anymore.