Take Five
By George Rose
May 19, 2009

This movie is over your head, most likely.

Didn't I just graduate from college? Aren't I supposed to be on vacation since Northeastern University substitutes Summer breaks for "co-op" internships? The plan was to wait until the Fall to look for a "real job" while I enjoy the beach and work part time for the next four months, the first real break I would have in five years since I chose a co-op university. That was the plan: take a break, relax, catch some sun and enjoy the Summer movie season in all its marketed glory. But how often do plans ever come to fruition?

If plans were reliable, I would have hated Star Trek and loved X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That didn't happen. Wolverine still makes me cringe at the thought of its video-game style plotline and I hope to see Star Trek at least once more (third time's the charm). The future can't be planned and movies are never what they seem. Oh, life, you funny little jokester. What makes this inconsistent existence a little more tolerable is the home-run hits out of the park from surprise hit films, the kind you go into with little expectation and come out from with high hopes for a better future. The film doesn't need to soar past $200 million (though Star Trek is sure to pass that mark and maybe a few more) for it to restore faith; maybe for it to alter the domestic box office but not for individual appeal.

Since I seem to have much less free time than I planned, I haven't been able to take the five minute breaks necessary to watch some of the older classics I hoped to catch up on or even the more recent critically acclaimed features. Instead, I have only my DVD collection to walk by as I head to-and-from work (not as part-time as I planned) to remind me of some of my favorite films. I could fill several articles with the big blockbusters we all know and love (or at least remember) but there are a few I own that you may not have heard of that are worth a peek, if you can find five minutes in your own busy week to watch them. If those on "summer break" can't find the time to do it I'm not sure when you will, but keep these titles in mind just in case you find yourself a little more fortunate than us dazed and confused post-graduates.

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

As the highest earner on the list this week, it is probably the most recognizable title. It doesn't hurt that it was an attempted re-launch of a beloved franchise from my father's heyday. I didn't need to see the old films to know of the character, since he was also a comic book legend, but my interest was hardly at an all-time high. The Summer of 1998 was filled with more interesting options (or so I thought at the time) but I was only 13 years old and my father was paying for the tickets so I saw The Mask of Zorro.

There's something about rebooting a franchise that gets movie-goers salivating, isn't there? Just after director Martin Campbell made James Bond interesting again with Goldeneye (and again over ten years later with the impeccable Casino Royale re-launch), Sony snatched him up and brought Zorro back to life. Instead of remaking a classic they gave it a more modern spin, casting Anthony Hopkins as the past-his-prime older Zorro who must train and equip a new, younger Zorro (Antonio Banderas) to carry on his legacy. Rather than erase Zorro's history for the new generations, they pay homage to it while making Zorro more than just a masked face. Zorro isn't about what one person did with cut-up black cloth and a fedora. It's about what people can do when they unite and allow morality to be their compass as they charge into action and fight for equality. Hopkins teaches this to Banderas and the audience, both of whom end the film more grateful than when they entered.

Did I mention the film also stars Catherine Zeta-Jones in one of her first Hollywood films? She is stunning, sexy and a more-than-compatible counterpart for Banderas. She kicks just as much butt and runs from just as many explosions as the two Zorros she fights beside, and I don't think she has looked so good ever since. The woman is timeless but never radiated more than when she was playing Elena. Unfortunately the sequel came seven years too late. Martin Campbell may have struck gold twice with Bond, but lost his shine with The Legend of Zorro. When a sequel waits that long and throws a kid into the works in desperation for a family audience, you know there's trouble. Though another attempt at bringing Zorro back may take another ten or 20 years, we still have The Mask of Zorro to help keep the dream alive and thank for being among the first and better re-launches in the last decade.

House on Haunted Hill (1999)

I had middle-child syndrome pretty badly when I was growing up. As the second of three sons (and a baby daughter to boot) I was the most moody of the four children in the family. When the other boys were playing soccer and my sister was playing with Barbies, I was in the basement watching movies. The first three VHS tapes I bought with my own allowance were Scream, Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. For some reason I took to horror the way vampires take to Bella Swan. We had the Disney collection and a bunch of mega-blockbusters, but if there was a horror movie in our house it belonged to me.

They weren't happy about it, but one day my parents took me and my younger brother to see House on Haunted Hill, a remake (not a re-launch) of the Vincent Price classic. Only because it was a remake of a film they knew and because my birthday is on October 21st did they take me to see the film opening night on October 29, 1999. To them, it was glorified torture porn (which the Saw franchise would later capitalize on). To me, it was an all-star cast stuck in a haunted house blood-bath. What better way is there for a 14-year-old to spend their Halloween-esque birthday? There was usually the hayride birthday party but this year I got to spend my big day with Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Famke Janssen, Geoffrey Rush, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan and the drop-dead gorgeous Bridgette Wilson (before she tagged on the -Sampras). While I was stuck in the theatre, my actor friends were stuck in a death trap as they fought their way through hordes of insane asylum ghosts and booby traps in an effort to win $1 million each. Only a few of them and I made it out alive, while the rest (including my parents) regretted all 90 mintues.

This is the problem with remakes; those who know the original rarely like the offspring, while those who are unaware of previous source material have a better chance of enjoying it. Don't get me wrong, my parents were scared just as much as I was. They just prefer the subtleties of classic black-and-white horror while my generation requires buckets of blood to know when something is scary (there is literally a tub of blood in this movie). Maybe if Martin Campbell had re-launched this franchise instead of allowing someone to do a remake it would have been more "critically acclaimed". Instead, we'll just have to settle for a killer cast and obscene gore, but at the end of the day the film fulfills. It may be a bit more bloody than you're used to but it will surely keep you awake for at least a night or two.

On a side-note, this film actually spawned a direct-to-HD-DVD sequel, Return to the House on Haunted Hill. Because of HD's superior abilities in formatting over Blu-Ray (before Blu-Ray won the war and stole all of HD's capabilities), the HD version of the film was a "choose your own ending" joyride. The movie itself is horrible but only because there was a version where you could make several selections throughout the film was it worth taking a look. It doesn't hold a candle to the remake (let alone the original) but will still have you cheering "DON'T GRAB THE MAP!" by the credits. It's a mistake you make only once, much like watching the film on any format other than HD-DVD (where it's possible to change the plot and save or kill the entire crew).

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Growing up I was just as big a video game geek as I was a horror fan. I was working at the AMC Hamilton 24 at the same time I was working at Game Stop, the two places I needed discounts the most since all I was saving my money for was DVDs and games. I was more a Nintendo follower than one of Playstation so I never got too into the Final Fantasy games (except for Final Fantasy X, which was great) but I was still fully aware of the release of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Computer animation was starting to boom and it shouldn't have come as much of a shock that a product of the Japanese would be so visually breathtaking. They sure know how to work a computer and special effects!

The plot doesn't follow any of the video games so previous knowledge of the material wasn't necessary. Why, then, did the film do so poorly at the box office? My guess is that it's due to the stigma that is attached to video game movies in general and other films that aren't video games that come off as though they are (I'm still looking at you Wolverine. My heart has never been so broken). Regardless of this perception, Final Fantasy was a stellar action movie with an amazing voice cast that deserved much more support. If the mindless Shrek movies can blow up with Michael Myers and Eddie Murphy, there should be no reason an animated movie with the likes of Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland and James Woods can't make at least $100 million. Unfortunately it didn't and no sequels were put in the works but that wouldn't stop me from using the film and many clips from it in Multi-Media class projects throughout my high school education.

After an alien invasion hits Earth in the year 2065, it is up to one scientist (who herself is infected by the alien "Phantoms") to find the spirits necessary to release the demons from destroying the world. Computer animation can show and blend visuals together in a way live action has yet to accomplish, allowing Final Fantasy to appear more smooth and fluid than such choppy action films as, well, Wolverine (live action actor + horrible helicopter special effects = comedy, not action). The ensuing destruction of the world is beautiful and epic, and the special effects so genius that they almost even appear realistic at points. At the very least, the complexity, beauty and detail of these effects has still not been matched by the industry, except for maybe Pixar (which itself is still more cartoonish than Final Fantasy). If you were someone who grew up loving Pixar films but are now too old to overlook the lesser quality of most things DreamWorks Animations produces, then I'm fairly confident you'll appreciate Final Fantasy. If not, then I at least recommend you go see Up on May 29th. Pixar and the Japanese can do no wrong with computer animation (I hope you're taking note, DreamWorks).

House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Maybe the problem with many films is that they get pigeon-holed into being stereotypes of a group. I love horror and video games but I am not limited to them, nor am I overweight, perpetually single or live in front of my computer. I like to think I'm a well rounded individual who has many tastes and interests, one of which is independent films (which I started paying attention to in my later teen years). Because of the massive mainstream and critical success of A Beautiful Mind and her supporting role in Hulk, Jennifer Connelly and her attempt at a second Oscar, House of Sand and Fog, were put on my radar. They did not disappoint.

Unfortunately Connelly would only strike gold (in terms of Oscar and box office receipts) with A Beautiful Mind, but her turn as a woman wrongly evicted from her home in House of Sand and Fog was far more deserving. After a family of Iranian immigrants move and plan to turn a profit on the cheap purchase, they refuse to let Connelly's Kathy reclaim her family's house despite the circumstance the government has wrongly put her in. Someone should have told them that plans rarely happen as prepared for. Kathy, an emotional wreck (something Connelly plays very well), finds comfort in a lonely deputy who helps her plan her revenge. Two plans - destined to go wrong - collide in this drama-filled feature starring the well-cast Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo as the Iranian residents.

Both Ben and Jen (no, not Bennifer) came into this film with previous Oscar glory, so while both were denied the win with House and Sand and Fog it wasn't as if they had never been recognized. The major upset came when Aghdashloo lost the supporting-actress statue to Renee Zellweger for Cold Mountain. This happens from time to time with the Academy; instead of rewarding the much more deserving Aghdashloo, they had to make up for snubbing Renee in the past by giving her the supporting-actress win "just in case she isn't nominated again". Poor Shohreh. Still, that didn't stop her from making the most of her role; she has since appeared in television shows like 24 and blockbusters like X-Men: The Last Stand. Hopefully we'll keep seeing her, Connelly and Kingsley in the future, but it's films like this – the kind you look forward to because of actor's previous works and the kind that put new actors on the map – that make following the careers of Hollywood elite so much fun. You might sob your little heart out as Connelly kicks and screams her way to revenge but you'll love every bit of the experience.

King Arthur (2004)

Clive Owen is one of those actors that I follow. He drives women wild and carries himself like an alpha male. The man, like so many others in Hollywood, deserves a bigger career. I wrote in a previous article about my love for him in Closer and must now remind you all again of his presence with King Arthur. With his deep, booming voice and wide, muscular frame, Owen is perfect casting as the King in Jerry Bruckheimer's little seen action-epic from 2004.

For those unfamiliar with the legendary tale, you're in luck. This version of the classic takes the liberty of dropping all mystical elements seen in previous takes in exchange for a realistic look at the characters set during the period after the collapse of the Roman Empire. There is no sword-in-the-stone for Owen to pull out but rather epic wars, religious conflict and political power struggles. Keeping him company are Keira Knightley as Guinevere (who is welcome to stay in any movie, in my book) and Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot (a role much more suited to him than Mr. Fantastic in The Fantastic Four).

While I am under the belief that either knowing or not-knowing previous source material affects the viewing pleasure of a film that has something to work from, King Arthur is a completely original take on material that has been redone a million times. There is no King Arthur book series or franchise. This story of a man who discovers his place among the community as its leader into freedom has seen so many incarnations that the only thing anyone can expect from Hollywood's latest attempt is the brand name itself. As far as films go, the action is exciting, the chemistry between Owen and Knightley is undeniable and the Bruckheimer stamp-of-approval is noticeable; all the things you could want and expect from a Summer movie.

The only thing that did not live up to expectations were its box office receipts. While the masses (and even some at BOP) dismiss this feature, I would rather watch it another ten times before watching Wolverine even once more. Maybe it's my blind love for Owen. Maybe it's because I can tolerate Gruffudd as Lancelot and not as Mr. Fantastic. Or maybe others didn't like it because the week before it was released the phenomenal Spider-Man 2 came out and their expectations had been offset. I don't know, and probably never will, but I do know I enjoyed the film and plan to continue to follow Owen as long as his career lasts. Then again, we all know how plans tend to work out. If they had for Disney and Bruckheimer, King Arthur would have been a bigger hit. I would also have more free time to watch movies I haven't seen yet but for now, here are five that I own in my DVD collection. For next week's article I plan to watch a few movies I haven't seen yet and rant about those, but who knows. Let's see what our busy week brings.