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Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay)

Pearl Harbor is a couple things. It’s a breathtaking historical visualization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And it’s a patronizing, cynical, disinterested war melodrama. The big problem with the melodrama is Randall Wallace’s script, which is vapid at best. It also barely factors in to the attack sequence. The attack sequence is all director Bay, for better and for worse, along with some unfortunate digital blurring to keep the rating down.

The Pearl Harbor sequence comes about halfway through. The movie runs three hours, the attack is at eighty minutes. Before the attack, there are some scenes with the Japanese (led by Mako and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who are both great) planning the attack and the Americans worrying about an attack. The Americans are mostly Jon Voight as FDR, Dan Aykroyd as the Naval Intelligence guy who can’t convince anyone to be worried, and Colm Feore as the Pearl Harbor base commander. But even if Aykroyd did get boss Graham Beckel to listen, the Japanese plan was too good. The Americans are just unprepared, which actually brings in the closest thing to a political statement the film makes. It makes various implications regarding the American military brass, as opposed to guys on the ground like Feore or Alec Baldwin’s Doolittle; Voight’s FDR isn’t with the brass either. It’s… interesting.

It’s probably what happens when history fails the politics of the filmmakers.

In other words, the film does a terrible job essaying how 1941 felt to the average person. Because Wallace does a crappy job in general and Bay’s really not interested in doing anything with regular people, not when he gets to do a special effects heavy war movie. As for the melodrama… the only person more disconnected from the melodrama than Bay is leading lady Kate Beckinsale, who doesn’t even get a caricature to play. Wallace’s script is, actually, quite interesting when you realize Beckinsale doesn’t just have less character than practically every other nurse (who are all man-starved caricatures, the slutty one, the sweet one, the fat one, the nerd), but her lack of character is what obliterates the film’s potential. Not just Beckinsale’s performance, which is… fine, given the circumstances. It’s vaguely believable she’s interested in Ben Affleck, but they—Wallace and Bay—can’t figure out how to get Beckinsale interested in third love triangle leg, Josh Hartnett.

See, Affleck and Hartnett are childhood best friends from Tennessee—the accents are better than you’d think; maybe not authentic, but better than you’d think. Affleck’s the alpha, Hartnett’s the beta. Though Affleck’s still fallible, he’s got dyslexia in 1941.

So let’s talk about the melodrama.

The movie opens with a flashback showing Hartnett’s character has a bad but sympathetic dad (William Fichtner in a flashback-redeeming cameo—or at least flashback-evening cameo) and sets Affleck up as his protector. Only Affleck’s about to ship out to England to get in the war because he’s getting old and still wants to be a war hero. He lies to Hartnett about volunteering and breaks new girlfriend Beckinsale’s heart, but she’s going to wait for him. Coincidentally Navy nurse Beckinsale and Army flier Hartnett both get posted to Pearl Harbor, where they see each other to say hello but don’t hang out. Or maybe they do. Because their supporting casts hang out but the film doesn’t do anything with Harnett or Beckinsale’s character development. What you’ve got with Pearl Harbor is a film wanting a beta to alpha arc for Harnett, but resenting Hartnett for being a beta, and then accidentally coming to the conclusion the alpha and beta labels are a bad way to think about masculinity. Only it can’t recognize that possibility because… dudes. There’s nothing more painful than the scenes when Affleck and Hartnett try to bond after Affleck gets back to find Hartnett and Beckinsale together. Much like when Beckinsale’s character is so exceptionally shallow you have to wonder how she made it through the scene without just defaulting to an honest answer and then when she becomes literal background in the third arc, you eventually welcome Hartnett and Affleck just standing around looking pensive as opposed to trying to talk about their incredibly complex situation.

Even though there are a couple times they’re supposedly going to have a hard talk. And there are a couple times Beckinsale’s going to get real with someone. Only she doesn’t have enough agency to do it. And Wallace doesn’t know how to write men talking about anything not military or war expository-related except Affleck and Hartnett’s buddies trying to figure out the best way to manipulate the nurses into bed. But they don’t mean it in a bad way—come on, it’s 1941, no one knew women were people yet.

Not even women.

So, spoiler, no, Beckinsale doesn’t have some kind of empowerment arc.

In fact, even though she gets the ill-advised, poorly written, and awkwardly placed end narration… Bay cuts her out of the end of the movie because she’s not a dude.

I guess to simplify the problem with the melodrama plot—it’s about Hartnett having a man-crush on Affleck because Affleck’s a square-jawed superman only to realize he’d rather have a lady, something Affleck seemingly wanted for himself but wasn’t ever going to tell puppy dog Hartnett about, and then Beckinsale—the object of their affections—doesn’t have enough of a character to react honestly to either, but with Affleck there’s at least movie romance cuteness; with Hartnett it’s a chemistry-free, erotic-free, erotic affair. It’s wholesome. With shtupping. Is it wholesome shtupping? Eh? Bay’s really bad at directing sex scenes.

Really, really, really, really bad. You’re surprised the actors aren’t blushing red from the stupidity.

Not like the canoodling, which Bay does somewhat well. Hartnett and Beckinsale’s romance is mostly short montage sequences where they cuddle and breath heavy on each other and it looks like a perfume commercial.

But the Pearl Harbor attack sequence is awesome filmmaking. Editors Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum don’t get jack to do before it and about twice that amount after it, but the attack is breathtaking thanks to them. Their cuts are so good the digital vaselining of the frame to insure the PG-13 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work, but it doesn’t matter. John Schwartzman’s photography is great throughout, especially on the attack. Even an uncaring bastard like Bay is able to make each death tragic. It also reveals if Cuba Gooding Jr., who’s shoehorned into the movie to give it a single Black character with a story arc, is Bay’s real hero. Gooding’s a cook who ends up shooting down Japanese planes; Bay’s a lot more interested in the ground action than the flying action. Pearl Harbor doesn’t reinvent any wheels (or even try), but it definitely gets a lot less interest when it’s “leads” Affleck and Hartnett hitting the sky to avenge.

But getting them to the planes to go into the sky? Bay’s all about their (ground) trip to it. It’s a problem. Bay’s a problem.

Other great crew contributions? Nigel Phelps’s production design is fantastic. Hans Zimmer’s score is fine. Nothing special, but nothing bad. It’s all about that editing though. All about that editing.

Now for the acting. Lots of good supporting performances. The film has a bunch of sturdy character actors giving sturdy performances in bit parts. In the bigger ones, Aykroyd’s pretty good. Voight’s no qualifiers good. He’s really able to turn FDR into an action hero. It’s something. Baldwin’s great as Doolittle. Gooding’s fine. It’s a shallower performance than it’s the part because Wallace does a crap job with it. Bay and Wallace believe in institutional racism in 1941 but not person-to-person racism. The movie’s patronizing as hell.

Of the main cast—Hartnett’s flying sidekicks and Beckinsale’s nursing sidekicks—Michael Shannon is a revelation, Tom Sizemore’s good, Ewen Bremner’s able to get over his stutter, which is only there to get sweet nurse Jaime King to fall for him. Jennifer Garner’s bad but likable as the nerdy nurse. Some of the better glorified cameos are Feore, Leland Orser, and Kim Coates.

Affleck’s a really good lead. He’s able to do it all. He’s not able to give he and Beckinsale enough chemistry to give their romance depth, but its all so disingenuous it’d be a miracle. And Pearl doesn’t have any miracles.

Hartnett’s got some really good moments and some potentially good scenes. It’s hard to wish for more because it’s so clear the film’s disinterested in him. Hartnett and Beckinsale start their flirtation just as the Pearl Harbor attack preparations subplot really gets going and, again, it’s not like Wallace and Bay are actually interested in how anyone existed in fall 1941 in Pearl Harbor and definitely not with a girl.

Beckinsale’s… never bad. She’s never… wholly unconvincing. Though she has an utter lack of chemistry with Hartnett, who she needs some with because they get so little in the script, and still not quite enough with Affleck to get over the silly romance stuff. You’d say she was miscast but she’s good with the straight nursing stuff.

In case anyone’s wondering, Pearl Harbor intentionally and utterly fails Bechdel. I suppose it’s technically exempt when they’re talking about the wounded but… the rest of it? This group of nurses moves from rural U.S.A. to paradise Hawaii and has no reaction other than “boys, boys, boys.”

When Wallace and Bay are bad at something… they’re real bad at it.

It’s shame the movie’s not better. But it’s far from a failure; Bay lacks narrative instinct and interest, he’s indifferent to his actors’ performances—which nicely doesn’t matter because most of the parts are thin and the performances grand—but he’s ambitious to the nth with the attack sequence and he’s at least willing to acknowledge it does need some kind of bookends. Unfortunately for the actors, the audience, the film, Wallace is writing those bookends. Because he’s inept. You’d expect more from an intern who watched a week of History Channel. Some of its Bay’s fault—if he’d cared about the melodrama, it’d be fine….

As is, thanks to the cast and crew’s work, Pearl Harbor is tolerable when it’s not phenomenal, which isn’t bad at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Randall Wallace; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Roger Barton, Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Steven Rosenblum; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Bay; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Rafe), Josh Hartnett (Danny), Kate Beckinsale (Evelyn), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Miller), Alec Baldwin (Doolittle), Ewen Bremner (Red), Michael Shannon (Gooz), William Lee Scott (Billy), Tom Sizemore (Earl), Jaime King (Betty), Jennifer Garner (Sandra), Catherine Kellner (Barbara), Sara Rue (Martha), Mako (Yamamoto), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Genda), Dan Aykroyd (Thurman), Kim Coates (Richards), Leland Orser (Jackson), Colm Feore (Kimmel), Raphael Sbarge (Kimmel’s Aide), and Jon Voight and the President of the United States.


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Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994, Andrew Morahan), the European version

About the only complementary thing in Highlander: The Final Dimension is Steven Chivers’s photography. The film’s got a terrible color palette, which isn’t a surprise since all of director Morahan’s decisions are bad, but Chivers never lets the film look cheap. It’s clearly cheap, but Chivers refuses to acknowledge it. It’s kind of cool. But only with a qualifier or two, because the crappy color palettes are a real problem. Most of Morahan’s direction is bad and Chivers does nothing to alleviate its damage on the film.

Well, I suppose there really isn’t much you could do for Final Dimension. A better director would have helped, but only so much. It’s one of those pictures not just without anything going for it, but without anything good in it. Deborah Kara Unger arguably gives the film’s best performance, but only because it’s the least worst. Unless you count Mako, who stands in for Sean Connery in this entry. He manages to keep a straight face opposite Christopher Lambert.

Final Dimension is one of those too craven sequels. It borrows story beat after story beat from the first film–though Unger doesn’t even get to be the damsel in distress, Lambert’s got a little kid to threaten in this entry. As that little kid, Gabriel Kakon is atrocious. No surprise, but Morahan can’t direct actors either. So it’s like watching all the action from the first film done in Panavision by a bad director shooting it in Canada. With photographer Chivers trying so hard to distract from its lack of domestic shooting locations, he just makes the film look terrible to hide it. Like I said, it’s kind of admirable. Chivers can clearly do a better job–lighting this terrible palette takes skills–but he doesn’t. There’s no excelling in the Final Dimension.

As the villain, Mario Van Peebles is almost funny. He’s just strange enough not to be sad, but he’s not strange enough to be interesting. A lot of it is an objectively bad performance. Some of it has the promise of a better performance. Again, Morahan. Also, it’s a terrible script. What is anyone going to do with a terrible script? Unger tries with her crusading archeologist bit but once the film gets her clothes off, it stops giving her anything to do.

Really bad performance from Martin Neufeld as the angry cop who’s after Lambert. Final Dimension fails on every level. It can’t even do bit parts well. It doesn’t have a script going for it, doesn’t have a director, doesn’t have production values (awful music from J. Peter Robinson, bad editing from Yves Langlois), but it doesn’t even have a good casting director. Maybe because there’s no credited casting director.

It’s a movie with a terrible Christopher Lambert performance I don’t even want to pick on. It’s such a bad script, turning Lambert into a nineties action hero dad while more T–800 than Highlander… it’s not a fair fight. Amid all the crappy work in Highlander: The Final Dimension, there apparently can be only one to do the crappiest work and it’s screenwriter Paul Ohl.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Morahan; screenplay by Paul Ohl, based on a story by Brad Mirman and William N. Panzer and characters created by Gregory Widen; director of photography, Steven Chivers; edited by Yves Langlois; music by J. Peter Robinson; production designers, Gilles Aird and Ben Morahan; produced by Claude Léger; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Christopher Lambert (Connor MacLeod), Mario Van Peebles (Kane), Deborah Kara Unger (Alex Johnson), Gabriel Kakon (John MacLeod), Martin Neufeld (Lt. John Stenn), Daniel Do (Dr. Fuji Takamura), Michael Jayston (Jack Donovan) and Mako (Nakano).


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Robocop 3 (1993, Fred Dekker)

It’s actually not hard to find nice things to say about Robocop 3. There’re about fifteen nice seconds of Phil Tippett stop-motion, Dekker’s got a neat way of shooting cars to give a sense of realism (his cinematographer, Gary B. Kibbe, did a lot of Carpenter’s films)… umm… wait, I’m sure I can find a third. It was cool seeing Jeff Garlin in a movie? Does that one count?

Robocop 3 is an unmitigated disaster, made on the cheap–made a few years later, if Orion Pictures had maintained solvency, it would have just been a direct-to-video entry–the only amusing way to pass a viewing experience is to rate the actors’ sense of embarrassment. Worst has to be Nancy Allen, who had so much vested interest in the sequel’s artistic import, she demanded to be killed off. There are a few “reasons” Peter Weller didn’t return–the costume, filming conflicts–but maybe he just read the script. As a PG-13 movie, Robocop 3 is silly. It turns RoboCop into a Saturday morning cartoon superhero, complete with bad one-liners.

What’s peculiar about the film is the cast. It’s a veritable who’s who of television personalities–famous ones. There’s Stephen Root from “NewsRadio,” he’s really bad. CCH Pounder, I’ll use “ER” as an example to keep up the strange NBC connection, is also bad. She’s usually quite good, so I suppose by not being more visibly embarrassed while delivering her lines–well, there’s a compliment somewhere in there. Jill Hennessy from “Law & Order.” She’s absolutely atrocious. Robocop 3 was delayed a couple years while Orion worked its way out of bankruptcy and I wonder if, had it come out as scheduled, she’d ever have gotten another role again.

But my favorite has to be Bradley Whitford, if only because he’s actually all right in Robocop 3. His character’s a generic corporate slime, but Whitford’s got a couple good deliveries. It doesn’t make the movie any better, but they’re funny deliveries. I wonder if he kept the glasses he got to wear in the movie.

I haven’t seen Robocop 3 in ten years and it appears to have corked rather significantly. I haven’t even gotten to some of the worst performances, which is mind-boggling since I have mentioned Hennessy already. I’m just worried I’ll forget the stunt performers, who jump long before they have any reason to, creating an almost surreal effect. But I don’t think Dekker was trying to bring Fellini to Robocop.

There’s an annoying little kid in this one–Remy Ryan Hernandez–she’s real bad. She’s got a great scene where–after doing calculus at a Doogie Howser age–doesn’t seem to understand her parents have been bussed away (the script’s got some real logic problems). Every scene with Hernandez is painful. It’s like the filmmakers were trying to appeal to a Disney girl audience or something.

Rip Torn is also terrible here, mugging for the camera (I’d believe it if they told him he was just doing a voice for a cartoon, which might explain his exaggerated expressions and so on). John Castle, terrible. Mako, terrible. Daniel von Bargen, okay.

As the new RoboCop, Robert John Burke is the pits. Why they didn’t just leave the helmet on all the time and hire Peter Weller to dub in the lines….

Well, that suggestion makes sense and nothing in Robocop 3 makes any sense.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Dekker; screenplay by Dekker and Frank Miller, based on a story by Miller and characters created by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Bert Lovitt; music by Basil Poledouris; production designer, Hilda Stark; produced by Patrick Crowley; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Robert John Burke (RoboCop), Nancy Allen (Officer Anne Lewis), Rip Torn (The CEO), John Castle (Paul McDaggett), Jill Hennessy (Dr. Marie Lazarus), CCH Pounder (Bertha), Remy Ryan Hernandez (Nikko), Bruce Locke (Otomo), Stanley Anderson (Zack), Stephen Root (Coontz), Daniel von Bargen (Moreno), Robert DoQui (Sergeant Warren Reed), Felton Perry (Johnson), Bradley Whitford (Fleck), Mako (Kanemitsu) and Jeff Garlin (Donut Jerk).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED ON BASP | THE ROBOCOP TRILOGY.

Conan the Barbarian (1982, John Milius)

John Milius takes Conan the Barbarian very seriously. The occasional use of slow motion and the endlessness of Basil Poledouris’s cheesy score signal Milius’s dedication. So do the long and frequent sequences of shirtless Arnold Schwarzenegger playing with big swords. At the beginning of the film, when it’s the prologue and Milius strange approach actually feels like the 1970s maverick (or friend of the mavericks) making a movie with James Earl Jones in a wig, it’s okay. Milius’s commitment there, it’s misguided and silly, but it isn’t idiotic.

Shortly after Schwarzenegger shows up, it gets idiotic. There are probably ten reasonable minutes (or seven) with Schwarzenegger. Then it gets to be too much. Schwarzenegger, obviously, cannot deliver dialogue (so when Milius gives him a couple monologues at the end, when the film’s already causing bleeding from the eye and mass suicide among brain cells, it’s astounding), but he can’t even emote properly. Had any of Schwarzenegger’s opponents for governor just run clips from this film… I can’t believe he would have won. It’s almost cruel how Milius uses him.

Then the rest of the cast shows up–near as I can tell, Jones was solely cast for his name recognition and to deliver a “my son” line straight out of Empire–and it just gets worse. Sandahl Bergman gets most of the lines–her frequent cooing at Schwarzenegger is icky as opposed to romantic–and she’s awful. She’s probably better than Schwarzenegger, who really doesn’t have much dialogue (it probably all fit on a page… half a page if the repeated lines are removed), but it isn’t saying much. In some ways, she doesn’t embarrass herself because she’s not a real actor, like Jones. However, Mako does embarrass himself. Max von Sydow, on the other hand, does not. He’s only got one scene–most of his dialogue is in one shot–and he’s in a big goofy costume. I didn’t even recognize him.

Ben Davidson and Sven-Ole Thorsen, as the two secondary bad guys, are worse, acting-wise, than even Schwarzenegger.

The production’s all very ornate (even if the special effects are out of a TV movie) and somewhat impressive. But Milius’s script is just dumb. Bergman’s character’s never even named in dialogue. Milius didn’t stick much to the Robert E. Howard library except for some details–Jones’s villain is nothing more than a cult leader, something Milius created–but then, the stuff he does keep doesn’t work because his Conan is so limply written. Sure, Schwarzenegger can’t deliver real dialogue, but the character doesn’t make any sense. Most of the time, when people talk and Schwarzenegger is supposed to be listening, it really looks like he’s trying to understand a foreign language.

I actually didn’t realize Schwarzenegger made Conan before The Terminator. For some reason, I thought it was one of his subsequent vehicles. I can’t wrap my head around it being a hit–did 1982 audiences like being bored?–but it seems to have kicked off the idiocy of 1980s Hollywood action epics quite successfully.

And I suppose there is some amusement in the constant state of bewilderment… it’s just so dumb.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Milius; screenplay by Milius and Oliver Stone, based on stories by Robert E. Howard; director of photography, Duke Callaghan; edited by Carroll Timothy O’Meara; music by Basil Poledouris; production designer, Ron Cobb; produced by Raffaella De Laurentiis and Buzz Feitshans; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom), Max von Sydow (King Osric), Sandahl Bergman (Valeria), Ben Davidson (Rexor), Cassandra Gava (The Witch), Gerry Lopez (Subotai), Mako (The Wizard), Valérie Quennessen (The Princess) and William Smith (Conan’s Father).


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