Saturday, April 25, 2015

Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile

Image result for romancing the stoneRomancing the Stone

Stone is often called a Raiders knock off because it involves a gun toting scruffy guy in a fedora that wanders around the South American jungle.  But really the handful of things I mentioned in that first sentence are the only commonalities the two films share.

Look, I don’t want this to be a comparison to Raiders so I’ll make this short and sweet.  Stone takes place in modern day and not in the 30’s, Jack T Colton (Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct, A Perfect Murder)) is a bird trapper and not an archeologist, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner (Body Heat, Crimes ofPassion)) is someone who’s never been on an adventure of any kind and not a tough dame at all (she’s essentially the complete opposite of Marion), pretty much the entire movie takes place in Colombia and not just the opening, there is no supernatural element and doesn’t involve some religious aspect, and so forth.

It’s not right to associate these films with each other because, as you can see, they’re pretty damn different.  Plus I was surprised to find out that the script for Stone was actually written years before Raiders.  Now with that out of the way let’s move on to see if this thing is worth checking out based on its own merits.

When Bob Zemeckis got tapped to do Stone he was under a lot of pressure.  His first couple of pictures didn’t do so well (although I really enjoyed I Wanna Hold Your Hand (I talk about one of the most remarkable parts in the beginning of this review)) but he was given one last chance to deliver a hit.  Well, Stone turned out to be a smash giving Zemeckis the power to make Back to the Future the next year.  So in the context of the BTTF’s this film is crucial to their existence.

The story is about a romance novelist, Joan, who has to venture to Colombia in order to save her sister (Mary Ellen Trainor (The Monster Squad, Die Hard and lots of other huge shit)) who’s being held for ransom.  The kidnappers (Danny DeVito (TinMen, Batman Returns) and some other guy) want a treasure map that the sister sent to Joan.  But the Colombian government, or maybe it’s just this one corrupt bad guy who’s using the government (not sure which), also want the map.  Along the way Joan meets Jack and they fall in love and find the stone and antics and etc.

Image result for romancing the stoneThat script is the big problem with the movie.  First of all it’s convoluted as hell.  There’s multiple layers of villains which was completely unnecessary and ends up diluting instead of enhancing the threat in my opinion.  And there’s also some backstory about Joan’s sister’s husband who we’re told was murdered (which strangely no one seems to think is a big deal) and may or may not have a connection to the stone and/or the treasure map.

Second, the plot is set in motion because of Joan’s sister and not Joan herself.  So in essence this whole thing isn’t about Joan, Jack or the stone but some character that’s on screen for maybe 3 minutes total.

Third, almost every single thing that occurs in this film is a coincidence.  Joan happens to get swept up in a ridiculous situation and meet a man that mirrors what she writes in her romance novels.  Our introduction to Jack is that he happens to be walking by when Joan is about to be shot for the map.  Joan and Jack come across a drug lord that’s about to kill them on the spot but doesn’t when he realizes it’s Joan Wilder and he’s a superfan.  Joan and Jack happen to steal one of the bad guys’ car without noticing him sleeping in the back which sets up shenanigans.  And on and on and on.  Jesus.  Our lead characters don’t really affect the story or use their own wits to get out of situations.  Whenever they need help it kind of just happens for them magically.

The result is I don’t care very much about what the hell is going on.  Oh man did this script need to be worked on a lot more.  It’s so messy and even lazy with how many of the situations resolve themselves out of the blue.  Like when Joan goes to cross a dilapidated bridge to escape the bad guys she slips and happens to catches a vine to swing to safety.  She didn’t plan on doing that.  It just happened.  Admittedly it was funny though when Jack gives a “holy shit!” in reaction to that.  But then he pulls up a vine and does the same goddamn thing himself without thinking twice. 

Image result for romancing the stoneJoan and Jack are kinda indestructible.  They get shot at a lot, jump off a waterfall, survive a car chase and even when some henchman goes to hit Jack in the nuts it’s foiled by Jack stashing the stone in his pants.  No real harm is done to these two throughout the course of the movie.

I really don’t get why this was such a hit guys.  I mean the casting is great, it’s shot fine and it has a fairly good balance of thrills, comedy and adventure (a touch heavy on the levity if you ask me though).  But what the fuck is up with the confusing setup, the coincidences at every turn and characters that will get out of any situation unscathed no matter what.

The last thing I want to mention is that this is rated PG but there’s definitely some questionably beyond PG shit in here.  For example Jack and Joan get drunk and high by sharing a bottle of hooch and making a weed fire (from a downed drug running airplane), a lot of “shit” use and one of the villains gets his hand bitten off by an alligator resulting in a pretty graphic and nasty stump that spews blood everywhere.  This came out the same year that PG-13 was instituted so I wonder if either the film was looked at before the new rating went into effect or maybe they gave this one a pass for old time’s sake.  One last ride on the ol’ very deep end of PG, but not enough to be R, horse.

Seriously though, this movie’s kinda crappy.

The Jewel of the Nile

Image result for the jewel of the nileSince Stone grossed big bucks they decided to do another one the very next year and managed to retain the core cast of Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito (Bob Zemeckis did not return because he was doing Back to the Future).  This time a ruler named Omar (Spiros Focas (Rambo III) who looks and sounds an awful lot like Omar Sharif (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The 13thWarrior)) wants Joan to come with him to Africa (to the fictional country of Kadir) to write his biography.  Jack is jealous that he can’t have Joan all to himself anymore and they decide to split (this takes place only six months after Stone by the way).  Well Jack finds out Omar is really a horrible dictator that stole the jewel of the Nile so naturally he has to go rescue her.  Oh and Danny DeVito tags along for some reason.

This is a sequel’s sequel.  They bring back the main characters, split them up to eventually bring them back together again, there’s a new setting, new obstacles the heroes have to overcome and the stakes are higher. 

But another characteristic that this film possesses, along with many other sequels, is that it’s extremely forced.  The setup is perhaps the biggest offender.  Think about what gets this story rolling for a minute.  Some African tyrant picks moderately successful romance novelist Joan Wilder to spread the word, predominately in his own region no less, that he’s the greatest person ever and should be followed into war.  How did she even get on his radar to begin with?  She must have a lot of fans over there.  Ok, even if she was the most famous author in the world it’s still a real tough sell at best.

Image result for the jewel of the nileThe other big contrived element is the inclusion of the Danny DeVito character.  He kind of is a fun, slimy, devious guy but he really has no business being here.  It’s obvious there was a mandate from the suits that he had to be involved but the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with him so he ends up following Jack around for a while until they sideline him about half way through.  He doesn’t do shit again until the very end.

One last negative I want to mention is Joan gets relegated to a damsel in distress.  Sure she didn’t do a whole lot in Stone but at least she squared off against one of the main villains at the end.  Here she gets kidnapped at the beginning and does almost nothing to help out or affect the story in any significant way.  This wasn’t a strong character to begin with but they only made her weaker.  She hasn’t grown at all since the last installment which is odd.

Let’s move on to the positives.  The filmmakers fixed the most glaring issues that Stone had.  With Jewel the plot is pretty straightforward and much more streamlined; bad guy steals Joan and Jack goes to get her back.  The villain (yes, one villain and not several) isn’t a bumbling fool or a purely evil person that we know nothing about.  We don’t get a ton of insight into Omar but it’s absurdly interesting that Jack and Joan are up against the head of a country.  That’s kinda serious.  And also there aren’t so many goddamn coincidences.  Jack actually makes decisions and those decisions change how the story develops.  In Stone it felt like Jack and Joan were locked into their destined path with everything ultimately going their way.  In Jewel you know they’re gonna succeed but they have to work more during their journey.

Image result for the jewel of the nileIt’s weird that Stone is seen as a Raiders wannabe because I think Jewel is the one that has more in common with it.  Yea I know that Stone is mostly forgotten by this point and no one has seen Jewel but check this out.  There’s the desert setting which is where at least half of Raiders takes place, a scene where Jack and Joan are locked inside of a grounded jet and they use the weapons on board to shoot the shit out of the bad guys, Jack goes hand to hand with a huge dude that emerges out of a hut, they get help from locals that are devoted to the jewel of the Nile (ok that one is really a Last Crusade thing, even though Jewel came out before it) and one of the most important similarities is that there’s a supernatural religious element.  I don’t think this is much of a spoiler because they tell you fairly early on that the jewel is really a person and not a precious stone.  He’s a holy man that gives the people hope and strength…I guess…I don’t quite remember.

However with that last paragraph said, it doesn’t feel like an Indy movie while you’re watching it.  Things are different enough that I didn’t think about all the parallels until later. 

So between the two it’s not the clearest call.  Both are pretty weak but I think I had a better time revisiting Jewel.  It’s way better in terms of storytelling and more cohesive.  Stone has this about-to-come-apart-at-the-seams-any-minute vibe.  But right before everything completely unravels a coincidence comes along and puts a band aid on it.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Jewel has a more linear route that progresses in a typical, but acceptable, fashion. 

Image result for the jewel of the nileI also like that Jack is nonchalantly crazier in Jewel.  He strolls right up to the front gate of Omar’s fortified palace and tells the guards that he’s expected.  No plan, no weapons, nothing.  That takes some balls man.  Moreover it doesn’t take much to get him into the idea of riding around a village in a jet shooting up everything in sight.  That scene is a lot of fun too with a bunch of mayhem and destruction (don’t worry, only the bad guys get hurt).

Overall though Jewel is tamer staying with the PG rating instead of upping it to PG-13.  And if they actually gave Joan something to do it would’ve improved things greatly.  Also the finale falls flat with some deus ex machina bullshit and no real confrontation between Jack and Omar.

In the end Stone and Jewel are kinda forgettable pictures that don’t do anything better than a lot of other adventure comedies out there.  Neither one is a diamond in the rough or…a lost gem.  (ooh, that hurt just to type it)  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Substitutes 1-4

The Substitute

Image result for the substitute 1996A mercenary named Shale (Tom Berenger (Major League)) is looking for a little r ‘n’ r after a botched mission in Cuba.  He heads to Miami where his girlfriend (Diane Venora (Heat)) teaches at an inner city school.  The head honcho gangbanger in her class (Marc Anthony (Hackers, music shit)) doesn’t like her though and has her taken out via a club to the leg.  Shale decides to fill in for her as the substitute only to find something more sinister going on at the school. 

Things are kinda convenient with this setup but that’s a trademark of the series.  Except for the fourth one none of these stories would get rolling if it weren’t for many layers of convenience.  But anyway, let’s see how these fine films shape up starting with the originale here.

What happens in this installment is pretty much what you would think just by looking at the poster.  Shale genuinely wants to teach the class history but has to resort to his military training to get them in line.  They talk back, bring weapons to class and some even try to kill him.  Shale gets back by yelling, relating to the students and, naturally, fighting a few.

Image result for the substitute 1996This one was definitely trying to cash in on the hood craze that was happening at the time.  While a bunch of the movie doesn’t actually take place in the hood it still deals with hood lifestyle and shines a light on crumbling inner city schools.  The message of how gang life isn’t glamorous and is a one way ticket to the joint or an early grave is prevalent as well. 

I wonder how much of an influence Dangerous Minds was on this.  It came out the year before and is similar in tone and shares the basic premise of someone with military expertise teaching a tough streetwise high school class.  Dangerous Minds doesn’t involve a major drug ring using the school as a storehouse though.  So points to The Substitute.

It’s not real great but certainly satisfying.  Shale may be a merc but he’s a merc with a heart of gold and he kicks some ass to restore order in the troubled school.  Plus it’s got William Forsythe (Firestorm) as, what else, a crazy s.o.b. that forces Shale to fight a giant Samoan dude at gun point just to get even for…uhh…Shale making fun of the size of his balls.

The Substitute 2: School’s Out

Image result for the substitute 2 school's outTwo teenage thugs go to steal a poor lady’s car but a local schoolteacher stumbles upon the situation and gets gunned down.  That teacher’s brother is mercenary Karl Thomasson (Treat Williams (Deep Rising)) and he wants to find out who the killers are.  In order to do that he has to go undercover as the substitute. 

They changed the setting to New York City (looks like Brooklyn or Queens) and decided to have this be a separate episode with essentially no connection to the first (even though one of Karl’s team members is supposed to be a leftover, but he’s not played by the same actor so why did they bother?).  But the story is pretty close to the first where you have the convenience of a military guy stepping in to settle a seemingly simple situation only to find out that a larger illegal operation is functioning inside the high school.  They also have some of the students realize that they don’t have to be in a gang and etc.

Image result for the substitute 2 school's out posterTreat Williams is surprisingly believable as a tough as nails bastard.  I mean I think Berenger was more believable with the weathered scared face and his build, but Williams has this cold and intense way about him that can be effective.  His wisecracks undercut any real threat though and the end result is someone that could maybe beat the shit out of you but you’re not really sure.

I actually like this one a little better than the first.  It’s not really any less cheesy or any more well made.  It’s sorta dumber but in all the right ways.  Like Karl gets help from the school janitor who was also an ex Green Beret or something and he gets around the school by crawling through the air vents.  Or Karl and his crew get in a firefight in a narrow hallway and it’s edited so that it looks like everyone is firing on each other without cover yet no one gets hit.  But what might be the dumbest thing in here is that Karl doesn’t even come close to finding out who his brother’s killer is.  That discovery is accidental and then the film abruptly wraps up.  His final fight isn’t with the killer either.  It’s with BD Wong (Oz, Jurassic Park) who runs the chop shop out of the school.  That shit is completely unrelated to his brother’s death.

All of these bad decisions and sloppy storytelling make for an entertaining experience.  The inner city stuff is there enough to get you your fix but that seems to be more beside the point here.  I would rank it second best in the series.  Sometimes if it’s weird enough and dumb enough it can be a fun ride.

The Substitute 3: Winner Takes All

Image result for the substitute 3I already wrote about this one back in August 2011, here’s what I said:

“This Substitute is definitely the best in the series and gets the not-as-rare-as-you’d-think honor of being a sequel that’s better than the original.  Actually, come to think of it I thought The Substitute 2: School’s Out was also better than the first one.  Whatever, Treat Williams (Deep Rising) pretends to be a smug college professor because he’s returning a favor for a dead buddy of his.  But what the kids don’t know is that he’s really a smug ex-soldier of some sort (I forget specifically what) that’s there to bust a drug ring that involves the school’s football team.

Image result for the substitute 3The story is a great one and the football players are all juiced up all the time so there’s plenty of confrontation (including in a pizza parlor and a classroom).  Everything about this one just works real well and I highly recommend it.  The good thing is that it’s pretty self contained so don’t feel like you need to see the first two before tackling this one.  In fact I would suggest starting with this one and if you like it then move on to the others.”

Sorry that wasn’t the most well written.  I should’ve clarified that steroids are the drugs involved.  The only thing I would add is the convenience once again of our merc knowing someone that’s having troubles at the school where they work.  Which of course leads to a larger discovery of, in this case, steroids and Mob influence. 

Of all the Substitutes this is the most ridiculous.  From the introduction of Karl’s sidekick (James Black (Soldier, The First 9 ½ Weeks)) practicing with his katana in the glaring sun, to the high school bell that concludes a college class (?), to the homoerotic workout montage, if you’re gonna see only one of these things this is it.

The Substitute 4: Failure Is Not an Option

Image result for the substitute 4 failure is not an optionA military academy is being run by a fascist tyrant named Brack (Patrick Kilpatrick (Class of 1999)) and he’s turning some of his cadets into vicious neo Nazis.  One of the trainee’s under Brack’s spell is the son of Karl’s old commandant.  So Karl is sent in as the substitute to see what’s what.   

Part 4 is different from the rest of the series in a number of ways.  First, Karl isn’t nearly as undercover as he usually is.  Everyone knows he’s an ex-military guy (Karl is supposed to be retired from killing scumbags for money at this point) and he even uses his real name.  What this really means is that the students don’t mistake him for a na├»ve outsider.  They know what he’s capable of.

Second, in the previous chapters Shale and Karl had to fight gangbangers and the mob, all with the assumption that military training trumps both of those types of bad guys.  For this one Karl and his crew go up against foes that share a similar background and Karl has a noticeably tougher time dealing with them.  He relies more than ever on other people to help him defeat his enemies.  In fact Karl doesn’t even have a final confrontation with Brack.  Instead the cadets intervene and finish him off which is awfully disappointing.

Image result for the substitute 4 failure is not an optionThird, the end goal isn’t well defined.  In part one Shale had to dismantle the drug operation, in part two Karl was looking for his brother’s killer and in part three Karl had to stop the steroid use and gangster stranglehold on the football team.  In part four Karl has to find out if his old friend’s son has become a neo Nazi.  But what then?  Is he supposed to kill people and un-brainwash the son?  Or just collect info and report back?  It’s unclear.

There are a couple of moments when Karl goes out of character too.  The weirdest one is when Brack dispatches his followers to blow up a local power plant.  Karl stows away in the back of their truck so he watches them set the bombs.  But the thing is he doesn’t do a damn thing about it.  This group of bad guys is only four or five strong so Karl shouldn’t have too much trouble taking them out and disarming the explosives.  But he doesn’t make any effort to sabotage the mission or even warn the workers in the plant that it’s going to blow.  He just looks around for a minute and then hides in the back of the truck again.  What the fuck?  It’s completely bizarre that he would fail to act in any capacity on this situation.     

It’s sad that they ended the series on the worst installment.  Maybe it’s me but I feel like part of it is that a military academy isn’t the best setting.  Child’s Play 3 and Major Payne I think are two arguments for that.  By the way these aren’t the same as boot camp movies like Full Metal Jacket and Tigerland which are fucking awesome.

It doesn’t have that heart of gold like the first one, the dumbness of the second or the inexplicable oddness of the third.  They didn’t go far enough in any particular direction which makes part four kinda bland.  Ironically failure is the option they ultimately went with.