An Animated Dissection: Thoughts on “Porco Rosso,” 25 years later

In my Animated Dissection columns, I often strive to remember or make note of several films, that I often feel are worth discussing. Some can be well-known films, and some are those that have fallen by the wayside in favor of more popular pieces of work. There will also be some animated films that I just can’t stand…but fortunately, this one isn’t one of them!

Director Hayao Miyazaki may be known for some of his more popular films like My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, but I have found that one of his more ‘subdued’ films, is one I have often found myself thinking about on several occasions.

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In the years following World War I, pilot Marco Pagot shied away from humanity, and became an anthropomorphic pig, assuming the moniker of Porco Rosso (aka “The Crimson Pig”).

Since then, he has used his piloting skills to become a freelance bounty hunter, flying across the Adriatic Sea, often encountering a number of colorful air pirates.

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Porco Rosso (“The Crimson Pig”)

When not bounty hunting, Porco usually heads off to partake in fine wine and good women. Sometimes, he can also be found at the Hotel Adriano, owned by his childhood friend Gina, one of the last connections he has to ‘the old days.’

Things change for Porco, when his plane is badly shot-up by an American pilot named Donald Curtis. With the last of his funds, Porco heads to Milan, and makes contact with a mechanic he knows named Piccolo. For rebuilding the plane, Piccolo assigns his granddaughter Fio to the duties.

Porco is at first against this, but with all the men Piccolo employs away, he is out of options. Porco gives in, with the hopes that the young girl’s work can help him best Curtis, when they meet again.

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Hayao Adapts Himself

Sometimes, some of Studio Ghibli’s films directed by Miyazaki, tend to be ‘happy accidents.’ That was the case with Porco.

Originally meant to be a 45-minute feature that would run on Japanese Airlines flights, it was to be an adaptation of Miyazaki’s 15-page watercolor manga, titled The Age of the Flying Boat.

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Top to Bottom: Panel from “The Age of the Flying Boat;” the same scene, as depicted in “Porco Rosso

The story is pretty simple, and one can see why it’s 3-part structure, may have been considered an easy piece to become a short feature for an in-flight movie.

Flying Boat serves as the underlying skeleton of the film, though one can definitely see differences in the pieces.

Notable is in the opening fight Porco has against some air pirates. In the manga, they kidnap a young woman, whereas in the film, the pirates kidnap a group of young schoolgirls, leading to a crazy romp as the pirates try to battle Porco in the air, and keep the rambunctious toddlers under control.

There also is the absence of Porco having a storied past, and Donald Curtis is known as Donald Chuck.

The end dogfight between Porco and Donald, also had to adhere to the limits of the printed page. Regarding the big battle, Miyazaki wrote: “If this were animation, I might be able to convey the grandeur of this life-or-death battle. But this is a comic. I have no choice but to rely on the imagination of you, good readers.”

It is notable that when pitching the film to the airlines, they were worried the aerial dogfights might get their proposal denied, but were surprised when the company said had no problems saying ‘yes’ to the material!

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The multi-language opening of the film.

As production carried on, the animation and costs proved to be a bit more cumbersome than originally thought. That was when producer Toshio Suzuki, felt they should actually turn Porco into a theatrically released film.

Even though the deal for the film had been changed from it’s original intent, the airline still would be named as an investor in the film, and would still get to run Porco on their flights. Word is, the deal is the reason for the film’s unusual opening, where a number of little green pig-creatures (a design created by Hayao himself!), ‘type’ out a summary of the film, in several different languages.

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The real-life Marco Pagot.

One could also assume that Miyazaki made up Porco’s human identity, but the name Marco Pagot is actually an homage to a real person Hayao knows (see picture on right)!

The two crossed paths when working on the anime series, Sherlock Hound, of which Pagot (an Italian animator) wrote a number of the episode’s scripts, and Miyazaki directed several of the episodes. Word is that Marco’s wife Gi, may have also inspired the naming of Porco’s friend, Gina.

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A Different Kind of Anime

Compared to the other films Miyazaki has directed, Porco is the only film of his where it’s lead is not a young individual. Instead, Porco is a person who was once an optimist, until war and the world disillusioned him, turning him into the ‘creature’ we see.

Some could almost see the film as being in the same vein as Herge’s Tintin comics, or even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, in how it intermingles action, drama, and at times, comedy.

Porco at times, sounds a bit like how George Lucas originally envisioned Indiana Jones, where the professor of archaeology would be a dashing playboy when he wasn’t off searching for lost relics. Though much like how we saw Indy portrayed in his series of films, we are never privy to Porco’s ‘flings,’ and simply follow him through his sea-based adventures.

Porco5Though Porco makes an okay living, it should be noted that a number of air pirates we see, are just as hard-up for funds as he is. When the Mamma Aiuto gang loses the tail on their plane due to a dogfight with Porco, their finances are only able to get them a replacement tail (see picture on right), but not enough money to even paint it, making it’s silvery form stick out like a sore thumb.

Porco himself is also one of the quieter leads that Miyazaki had written up to that point. Often observant and contemplative, he probably speaks the least of all the main characters the director has had. However, it is rather interesting to see how much expression Miyazaki’s animators get out of the minimal movements he has. Plus, for the majority of the film, his eyes are hidden behind the dark shades of his glasses.

Much like how real-world events shaped the work being done on Howl’s Moving Castle’  almost a decade later, events in the area during the 90’s, where the film was taking place, influenced it’s storyline.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 90’s, this added an extra tinge of ‘reality’ to the film. Whereas the rise of fascism across the Adriatic in Flying Boat was only hinted at in the adapted manga, we get a small taste of what’s going on in the film, when Porco comes ashore to Dubrovnik.

Paying off the loan on his plane, the bank employee tries to get him to purchase war bonds, but he simply responds that that is something the “humans” can do.

After this, he visits a small shop to pick up some more weaponry and ammunition. Word of a governmental change is on the mouths of several of the shop’s workers, but Porco claims he has no intention to fight in another war.

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Porco at the Ghibli Museum.

Also of great interest, is the ‘curse’ surrounding his transformation into a pig-headed man. After all these years, Miyazaki has never given an explanation for the ‘curse,’ often leaving the mystery to the audience, to unravel in their own minds.

Even the face of Porco with his dark glasses, is an image that Miyazaki likes to ‘doodle,’ just as much as his imagery of Totoro. Porco even shows up at the Ghibli Museum’s cafe in Mitaka, Japan. Known as the Straw Hat Cafe, Porco’s head appears over the cafe’s chalkboard menu, but instead of his aviation goggles, he wears a straw hat.

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Women in Control

With his previous features, Miyazaki largely focused on female leads. From Nausicaa to Kiki, his girls and women often found their optimism tested in the face of adversity, or events that were oftentimes foreign to them.

Though Porco is our lead for this film, Miyazaki makes sure that the girls and women that we see around him, are often some of the more level-headed characters.

Of those we see, the characters of Gina and Fio act as a sort of yin-yang

Gina was a former childhood friend of Porco’s, and was married to one of their friends. However, when we see Gina, she is a widow, entertaining and running her hotel in the Adriatic Sea. She is self-sufficient, and though it seems she may pine for Porco at times, she is not one to just run off with any man.

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This is notable when Donald Curtis finds her in her garden, and in a rather extravagant, “American” way, proposes to her…which leads to Gina laughing heartily, as she hears him claim that he intends to become President one day!

While Gina is the older woman who has lived life and matured, Fio is the young girl, the optimist with unending energy, that often overpowers some of Porco’s own misgivings.

Notable is when Piccolo declares that she will be doing the new design work on Porco’s plane. Porco is at first against this, but she manages to convince him with her enthusiasm, as well as her ‘plussing’ Porco’s plane. Much like the disconnect between some generations, Porco doesn’t wholly understand a lot of what Fio is doing to his plane, but he trusts her enough to figure that the alterations she pushes him to approve, are going to help him out in the long run.

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Another notable scene comes later on, when Fio and Porco encounter the air pirates, who first intend to destroy Porco’s rebuilt plane, until Fio reminds them of the honor of being ‘flying boat pilots.’

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Women also become the only workforce available to Porco and Piccolo, as a number of men have left Milan because of the Great Depression, leaving Piccolo’s relations to carry on the rebuilding effort.

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Beautiful Imagery

Several of Miyazaki’s works reference Europe, and the locales of this film, play out in such a way, that a few of it’s panoramic landscapes may get stuck in your head.

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Most notable to me, is one where Porco decides to head off to Milan. as a Mandolin strums a melody, we see the red plane, but far away, as an enormous mass of clouds seems to dwarf it!

The film at times seems to act as an eye-opening travelogue to the Adriatic,  given all the scenery we visit. Even Porco’s island hideaway looks like the perfect place to get some peace and quiet.

One of the film’s more ethereal moments, comes when Porco tells of a near-death experience he had, near the end of the first World War.

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Seeing a streak of white high in the air, it soon turned out that it was a ‘stream’ of planes, (thousands of them!), and of which Porco soon saw his comrades who had perished in a recent aerial battle, rise to become a part of!

The scene is one of those that seems to ‘haunt’ my memories. It is a vision I have never seen committed to film before: the sight of numerous vintage aircraft, flying in a neverending stream. Are they going somewhere? Are they cursed to forever circle above us, never to be seen? We’ll never know.

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An Ode to older animation

While the Ghibli style is present in this film. it should be noted that it seems the animation stylings of the time, can be glimpsed in a few places.

Most noticeable is in a black-and-white cartoon Porco sees, under cover of talking with a former Italian Air Force comrade.

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The short seems to combine a number of different animation stylings, with it’s characters first seen flying in planes, which may be a reference to the first Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy. It’s lead characters seem to be a sort of loose-limbed rabbit character, and a large pig who attempts to abduct the heroine. This could also be some form of homage to Mickey Mouse, and his first nemesis, Peg-Leg Pete.

The heroine of the short, appears to be an amalgamation of Fleischer Studios’ depictions of Olive Oyl from their Popeye shorts, as well as with her ‘glamorous’ facial features, a mix of Betty Boop.

The leader of the Mamma Aiuto gang also may be influenced by Popeye, with his buff physique and spiky beard, he bears a passing resemblance to Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto.

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It could also be said that the final fight between Curtis and Porco, may also be a small homage to the rock-em/sock-em fights that took place between Popeye and Bluto.

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Music of a Bygone Era

When it comes to music, Jo Hisaishi’s score for Porco, is one of the more journey-filled pieces he’s done for his friend’s films.

For the Mamma Aiuto gang and some of the other air pirates, Hisaishi breaks out the brass instruments, making it sound like most of what they are doing, is little more than an ‘aerial circus.’

When the action ramps up, so do the strings, and even at times, the woodwinds. A notable piece is when Porco and Fio escape Milan, as the Italian authorities attempt to apprehend him. It’s a tense scene of escaping through the city’s waterways, with a Shostakovich-like piano melody that plays over the scene.

Throughout the film, a mixture of piano and strings often punctuates Porco’s quieter moments, a trace of wistful melancholy flowing through some scenes. A piece dealing with Porco and Gina sharing time at her hotel, also has the faintest hints of the song “As Time Goes By” to it, as if the composer tried to throw in a little homage to Casablanca.

Fio also gets a theme, with woodwinds being the major motif. Her piece is a bit more ‘playful,’ and often enhances a number of scenes where the focus shifts to her.

Notable to me, is the closing song for the film, titled Once in Awhile, Talk of the Old Days. The track has a wistful melody, starting and ending with piano, before eventually building to a plateau with a number of strings, sounding like wind skimming across the mists of time.

I recall going back to my hometown in Iowa 9 years ago for my high school reunion, and the song seemed to sum up my feelings, seeing people I last remembered as teenagers, back when the world seemed more optimistic. The track played in my ears, as the bus took me out of a place I could recall more wistfully from youth, but had changed over time.

That seems to largely be the theme of Hisaishi’s overall score: music that feels like you’re looking back on a time and place. The memories are there, but it’s all a bit hazy from the decades that have passed.

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When one compares Porco Rosso to some of Miyazaki’s more ‘popular’ works, it often seems to easily get lost in the shuffle. Personally, I often feel that I and a select few people, are the only ones who have some love for the film.

One of the things that is most notable, is that it is one of Miyazaki’s shortest films, but the pacing of the film is so good, that it often feels like it is over too soon! I can’t recall ever being bored once during the entire film.

In researching this blog post, I was looking for further information in regards to Miyazaki’s remembrances, or comments following the release of the film.

Unlike some directors who seem to have fond memories of previous films, Miyazaki rarely seems to gush or hold any of his past works in high praise. This is notable in watching the documentary, In the Kingdoms of Dreams and Madness. One of the women in the documentary makes references to Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as Porco RossoPorco is brought up, given that the film that was being worked on at the time (titled, The Wind Rises), also deals with flying machines.

However, when he remembers his older work, Miyazaki merely calls it “a foolish film.”

An interview for Animerica Magazine in 1993, also had him feeling that the film flew in the face of his feelings, that (in his own words), “animation is for children.”

It should be noted that a few years ago, rumor surfaced of a possible sequel to the film. Studio Ghibli is not a studio known for sequelizing, so this news was met with some caution.

A rumored title was Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, and would have featured Porco taking to the air once again, this time as an aged pilot, during the Spanish Civil War.

No concept art or anything more was ever shown of this, and with the current status of Studio Ghibli seemingly closed off from doing anything other than an upcoming film project with Miyazaki, it is possible that The Last Sortie may join the ranks of many other projects the famed animation director considered, but never worked on.

Personally, I found the end of Porco Rosso had a decent closure to it’s story. Some loose ends were tied up, but other mysteries remained, for one of Hayao Miyazaki’s pieces, that feels like a good memory, I often enjoy coming back to.

Pretty good work for a film that was originally meant to play to weary businessmen.

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Porco Rosso is a product of the early ’90s, of my world views being challenged by real-world events. It’s also the product of my resolve to overcome the challenge and build a stronger way of life, a stronger way of looking at things.” – Hayao Miyazaki, from an interview conducted by Takashi Oshiguchi in 1993, for Animerica Magazine)

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Terrible Two’s: Independence Day – Resurgence

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

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Much like the song by the group Third Eye Blind, Writer/Producer/Director Roland Emmerich, seems to live a “semi-charmed life,” with much of it happening during the 1990’s.

There was mild interest and praise when it came to his and partner Dean Devlin’s 1994 film Stargate, but 2 years later, the two would rule the worldwide box-office.

Enticing people with trailer imagery of aliens destroying The White House (which also elicited cheering from some audiences!), their summer release Independence Day, became one of their biggest success stories…and one that they failed to repeat over the years.

While many of us seemed to think the film was over-and-done-with, there were some die-hard fans who felt that there was more to the story. Some imagined that we had just seen the first wave of an invasion force, and hoped for more.

And so, 20 years later they got more…but it wasn’t quite the ‘more’ they hoped for, turning many a fan’s wishful dream, into a retreaded nightmare.

*Warning: this post will journey into spoiler territory, so if you don’t want to have anything about the film ruined, turn back…but who am I kidding? You didn’t see it, and want to know why to avoid this thing like an alien plague, right?*

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Coincidence, thy name is Roland (Emmerich)

Every director has a crutch they usually end up falling back on. For Roland Emmerich, it is that cruel mistress, known as ‘coincidence.’

While coincidence didn’t totally overwhelm ID4, going onward, I came to see it more and more in his films (from a taxi cab constantly avoiding his Godzilla, to John Cusack maneuvering a limo through a crumbling Los Angeles, and more!). One would hope Roland would have learned his lesson by now, but just like how Michael Bay seems to keep assuming that snarky jerks are the everyman of today’s films, Roland can’t escape ‘coincidence.’

Plus, by the looks of one scene, they finished building our moon base’s laser-cannon just in the nick of time, as the aliens seem to come upon us within mere hours of it’s being fully-operational (and which they quickly succeed in destroying).

Oh, and remember how President Whitmore mentioned in the first film, that ‘maybe it’s fate, that today is the Fourth of July?’ Well, would you believe the next wave of aliens decided to launch their attack 20 years to the day we fought back? Yep, that happens here!

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Of course, one of the biggest moments where you might cry ‘enough,’ comes at the end, when the massive Queen Alien, stalks after a school bus, while also firing on it with her own personal laser-gun (yeah, her ‘subjects’ made her her own BFG!). But, just like such close-calls in Godzilla (1998) and 2012, this huge creature can’t seem to take down this tiny little school bus!

There’s plenty more ridiculousness to be had in the end as well, but I’ll stop, lest I drone on for another thousand words.

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Flimsy Character Development

When it comes to sequels, it’s a given that most people want to see those characters they remembered from the last film. In the case of this film, it’s almost like going to a Hollywood Autograph Show, to see who needs some extra cash.

The biggest news was Will Smith turning down reprising his character (Captain Steven Hiller) in the sequel, but names such as Bill Pullman (as President Charles Whitmore), Jeff Goldblum (as David Levinson), and Vivica A Fox (as Steve’s widow, Jasmine) came back. However, they are largely relegated to supporting players, with Goldblum’s David being the only one who gets a ‘meatier’ role.

Fox’s character could almost have been written out entirely, as she seems to garner less than 5 minutes of screentime. Most likely, this was the writer’s ham-handed attempt to give us an emotional moment for her son Dylan to have (a moment that fails to deliver when the time comes).

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General Grey (Robert Loggia)

One of the few moments where I was somewhat taken aback by a character’s appearance, was in the brief acknowledgement of General Grey (played by the late Robert Loggia). Grey was the gruff General by Whitmore’s side in the first film, and here, he is given a small cameo, along with a very quick eye-to-eye with Whitmore.

With the former film’s main cast now a bunch of ‘old fogies,’ Emmerich’s attempt to keep the series alive, falls on  ‘a new generation’ of kids, who grew up in the wake of the 1996 attack. However, by the end of the film, I couldn’t even tell you what any of their names were!

Emmerich seems to be trying to pull a Top Gun vibe here with his pilot characters. They include Dylan Hiller (Steve Hiller’s stepson, played here by Jessie Usher), Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), Charlie Miller (Travis Tope).

Plus, would you believe that former President Whitmore’s daughter (played this time by Maika Monroe) also is a former fighter pilot, along with being Jake’s fiance?

Of course, one of the biggest re-jiggerings of a character after they are presumed dead, comes in regards to Dr Brakish Oaken (played by Brent Spiner). It turns out that being an alien conduit in the first film didn’t kill Oaken, but just sent him into a coma for 20 years…one that he conveniently wakes from just as the aliens show up this time, and with no muscle atrophy, simply starts walking around and acting just as obsessed with aliens as he did 2 decades ago!

The film also does away with some characters, as if they never existed.

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Constance Spano (Margaret Colin)

A prime example, is Constance Spano (played by Margaret Colin) from the first film. Having divorced from David a few years prior to the first film, the events of the first film made it seem that the two would reconcile.

Surprisingly, she is never mentioned once in Resurgence! Instead, we get a new love interest, in the form of Catherine Marceaux (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). However, she is little more than a talking head whom the film intends to make us believe, has “chemistry” with Goldblum’s David.

Also in regards to David, is the return of his father, Julius. In one scene, Roland could have given us the perfect opportunity to kill off Julius and make us actually give a damn…but instead, the elder Levinson becomes an adoptive father-figure to some displaced kids, and ends up taking the wheel of a school bus (I wish I was joking, but I’m not)!

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Russell Casse’s children from ID4: Miguel (James Duval), Alicia (Lisa Jakub), Troy (Giuseppe Andrews)

Speaking of orphaned kids, we have ANOTHER group of characters missing-in-action: the children of Russell Casse (played by Randy Quaid).

The last time we saw these three, was at Area 51 in the first film, with Casse’s eldest son Miguel (James Duval) witness to his Dad’s sacrifice.

However, in this film, there’s no mention of what became of Russell’s kids. Plus, we get the subtlest of references to Mr Casse, when we are shown a brief glimpse, of a rebuilt Washington Monument. His name is carved into the structure, but it’s one name out of  hundreds that passes by as we see a flying vehicle catch our attention (and, it’s several hundred feet in the air where even the most casual tourist can’t even read it!).

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Russell Casse’s only ‘mention’ in the entire film (highlighted so if you see the film, you’ll know where to look)

Of course, what happens in this film is nothing new, as Emmerich seems to fancy himself as some master of ensemble casting in numerous films. However, it seems rather odd that when it comes to a group of young persons who grew up orphaned in the wake of the last attack, a few of Casse’s kids wanting to join up wasn’t considered!

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Alien technology…not for consumer use!?

If you saw Back to the Future as a kid like I did, I assume you were just as surprised as I was, when the DeLorean Time Machine, folded in it’s wheels, and flew off into the sky!

With the kind of hover-technology and weaponry the aliens carried in the first film, one would assume we’d have had some big advancements 20 years in the future, right?

id42-21Well…only if you are the government, or the Military.

The alien technology seems to make flight and maneuverability so much easier (it’s no problem to just take off from Earth and fly to the Moon in a matter of minutes for those in the Armed Forces!)…so why do civilians still rely on fossil fuel-based vehicles (see right)? Or for that matter, still use helicopters with rotors? Heck, this world still uses massive seafaring cargo ships that seem to take a lot of time to cross oceans!

Apparently, the only other use this anti-gravity technology has been used for…is to create giant jumbo-tron flat-screens for events like this one in D.C.

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To me, this could mean one of two things:

  • Despite nations of the world working together, Big Oil survived the 1996 attack, and is still affecting fuel consumption around the world.

or…

  • The filmmakers had to make budget cuts, and severely limited how many flying vehicles they could have people using on-screen.

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Enough with the references to the first film!

Anyone remember the film 300? That film seemed to live-and-die based on imagery of Gerard Butler yelling into the camera…but as to the rest of the film, most don’t recall much beyond Butler yelling, “SPAR-TAHNS!!”

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Charles Whitmore (Bill Pullman)

The first Independence Day was rife with all sorts of one-liners that stuck in people’s heads (most of them recited by Will Smith). However, the one bit that almost everyone recalls, is President Whitmore’s big speech before everyone goes into the final battle.

For some reason, the aliens heard this speech (and somehow have visuals of it!?), and even the current President (played by Sela Ward), invokes part of it during the 20th anniversary celebration of the event.

We even get a rather mean tease, as it feels like Whitmore is going to give us this film’s ‘big speech,’ but instead…it just turns into a semi-boisterous declaration that fizzles out!

There’s also a small, eye-rolling cameo, as we see Will Smith: in a painting, as his son goes to meet Whitmore’s daughter in the White House.

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President Landford (Sela Ward)

Of course, one of the biggest throwaway lines comes when the current President (played by Sela Ward) is confronted by aliens at the secret bunker she’s been taken to.

“There will be no peace,” she says, in one of the strangest line references to the first film…a line that only the most die-hard of fans will get (or those of us who’ve seen the film a few dozen times).

in case you’re wondering, this line refers to a scene where Dr Oaken is being used as a vocal conduit by one alien, and Whitmore asks if ‘there can be a peace.’

“Peace…no peace,” the alien says through Oaken.

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Bigger isn’t always Better

Over the years, I’ve seen this happen in a number of ‘second’ films. There becomes this uncontrollable desire by the filmmakers, that they need to make everything bigger and better than the first film (and a main reason why I started this sub-category).

That is definitely the case here, when the aliens attack. The first film had ships with a 15-mile radius descending on numerous cities. Here, we get one massive ship, over 3,000 miles wide, and threatening to break the planet’s crust (though it does land, we never get any follow-up regarding that crust-breaking claim!). It also comes with a detachable ‘Harvester Queen’s Lair,’ so her ship can approach Area 51, just like that one ship in the first film.

There also is an amped-up storypoint, regarding the harvesting of our planetary resources. The first film covered the aliens’ invasion with a quick explanation by President Whitmore. In this film, the keywords to their attack this time, are ‘our molten core.’ There is a hokey explanation at the beginning of the film (apparently, one of the first film’s ships landed and attempted to drill), and then plenty of science mumbo-jumbo happens, as it seems noone can calculate just how long it takes the aliens to drill to the center of the Earth.

It’s never explained just why or how they use this material to make their weapons and technology, but the film’s attempts to make this one of several ‘ticking clocks’ in the final third of the film, quickly gets rather humorous. One could almost make a drinking game for every time some actor tries to make the phrase ‘our molten core,’ sound serious.

The same kind of overkill, appears to also be prevalent in the film’s special effects-heavy scenes.

Much like how George Lucas seemed to peg an all-CG world as the next evolutionary step in his ‘universe,’ so too has Emmerich. The intricate models and miniature effects are gone, replaced with extensively-built CG environments.

This is largely on display as the Mother Ship’s own gravity, sucks up all sorts of things (including buildings) from China and the Middle East, and many miles away, deposits them onto London.

We’re meant to be in awe of what we are seeing, but it just struck me as rather ‘meh.’ Sure, we see the Burj Khalifa tower impacting the ground, disintegrating in a flurry of debris and glass shards, and London’s Tower Bridge being destroyed (again?), but it all seems so…impersonal (doesn’t help that our ‘heroes’ flying through the debris, seem rather detached from the fact that they are surrounded by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people!).

Strangely enough, I felt a bit more reality was given in the Chicago invasion scene in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. The reason? We actually got to see people affected by the destruction…let alone people being obliterated by the enemy!

It could be that also like what Lucas did with his Star Wars prequels, Emmerich has also become detached from ‘humanity,’ and would rather try and distract us with what awesome CG effects he has at his disposal.

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We even get the filmmakers trying to make a ‘small’ joke, as one of the massive landing legs on the ship, just seems to ‘nudge’ the rebuilt White House, before a piece of debris knocks it’s American Flag and pole, slightly askew.

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Asian Audience Pandering (and Easy Cannon-Fodder!)

Probably not since Transformers: Age of Extinction, have I seen a film try to pander so much to the Chinese marketplace.

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Chris Hemsworth’s brother says, “Be sure to drink your Moon Milk!”

We get everything from a voice telling of a Moon Milk drink, to the President’s daughter using the program QQ to chat with her fiance. I have used QQ in the past, but it’s largely a messenger program, related to the Chinese marketplace.

Plus, the film has no problem just making the Asian masses on-screen, be the human cannon-fodder this time as the aliens invade. We see the all-Chinese crew on the moonbase’s defense system obliterated, let alone see hundreds running for their lives and sucked up in one scene.

Plus, the defense system on the moon is considered to be part of a ‘United Global Defense Unit,’ but for being ‘united,’ it is heavily-controlled by the Chinese. So, what happened? Did the UGDU need emergency funding, and the Chinese were eager to buy them out?

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When it comes to big-names from China, the film casts model-turned-actress, Angelababy (aka Yang Ying), as China’s representative pilot. However, she serves as little more than eye-candy, and relationship fodder for one of the American pilots, played by Travis Tope (who gives one of the worst pick-up line deliveries I’ve heard in awhile!).

If Emmerich had at least given Angelababy some decent character development, I probably wouldn’t be so unforgiving, but she serves about as much purpose here, as most women do in a Michael Bay film.

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I’m with Stupid (Aliens)

Some people I talked to online before the film’s release, had ‘starry-eyes,’ imagining that this sequel would shed more light on the exo-suited alien race from the first film.

As I expected, we got very little extra knowledge, except that these aliens just love sucking up planetary resources.

It’s also never fully-explained why the massive ship chose to come to our planet. It is commanded by a Harvester Queen, which there seem to be an abundance of in this species. There is a strange subtext that she seems to be zeroing in on Pullman’s character for revenge, but these creatures also seem to be intended to be devoid of emotions.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the Alien Queen from attempting to destroy a puny schoolbus or Whitmore’s daughter, rather than try and carry out her ‘master plan.’

In Resurgence, we also get the introduction of a new alien species: one that ported itself from biological, to digital many years prior, after an attack by the aliens on it’s homeworld. The alien appears in the form of a white sphere, that then holo-projects things to the humans. Though strange enough, the humans turn it on and off by touch, like a computer (then again, it looks like some futuristic Apple product!).

This is Emmerich’s attempt to try and make his Universe even bigger, but his concept here just becomes flimsier, the more information we find out regarding this new lifeform.

It doesn’t help that the alien came ‘to evacuate as many humans as possible,’ but didn’t make us aware of it’s intentions, and was attacked by the ESD’s moonbase cannon.

Plus, this entity is supposedly the leader of a hidden world that teaches other alien species to build weapons to counter the evil aliens…yet, was not smart enough to not send itself!? One would assume they would send out some sort of ambassador or ‘scouting party,’ on the off-chance a hostile entity would try to do them in.

Instead, the alien just goes, “My radioactive signature will be detected by the Queen, therefore, you must destroy me before she gets ahold of me.”

For an alien species that has gone digital, this one isn’t too bright. Plus, at the end, the rather coincidental way that the humans win the fight (like the first film, it all relies on sheer dumb luck!), is enough for the sphere to want the humans to come to it’s homeworld, and lead it’s planned resistance.

Of course, given how well this film went over, I seriously doubt intergalactic space-travel and that huge war across the stars, is ever going to occur. At the very least, we’ll hopefully be spared another stupidly coincidental way in which more of the evil aliens are destroyed.

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While there were numerous tie-ins and much publicity, some sensed all was not well, when Twentieth-Century Fox claimed they would not hold early press screenings for the film. To many, this was a sign that something was amiss…and when the film was finally released, those feelings were allayed, big-time.

Personally, while many gnashed and complained about the 2016 Ghostbusters film being a ‘crime against humanity,’ I felt that Resurgence better fit the bill (hey, at least Ghostbusters had it’s own ‘Will Smith,’ in the form of Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann character!).

A lot of films related to 10-30 year old properties these days, seem to fall back on that unfortunate tact, of simply ‘recycling,’ and ‘punching-up’ the older story, and that’s what we have here.

Emmerich and Devlin caught lightning in a bottle in the Summer of 1996, and when trying to do the same thing 2 decades later, it just looks pathetic.

To me, Independence Day was a product of it’s time A film made when corporations were taking over Hollywood, actors were demanding $20 million+ paydays, and film and advertising budgets were also ballooning out-of-control.

At this point, it feels very unlikely that Fox will pony up more dough for Emmerich to make another feature film related to Independence Day…though maybe like how Stargate spun off into it’s SG-1 and Atlantis counterparts, a TV series might be the only way for Roland to continue his own intergalactic space opera.

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Oh, and one more thing Roland…DID WE REALLY NEED ANOTHER ‘DOG IN DANGER’ MOMENT!? THIS ISN’T 1996!!!

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Movie Review: Baby Driver

Rated R for violence and language throughout

While I grew up loving and watching films made by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, I was always on the lookout for new directors to add to that must-see list, who would engage my senses with their unique vision. In the late 2000’s, the name Edgar Wright quickly made the leap onto that list.

Wright’s films had a nostalgic taste of pop-culture, while often engaging in stories where their somewhat childish protagonists, would need to take charge of their lives, and grow up (often through rather bizarre circumstances!).

After he was let go from the Marvel Studios production of Ant-Man, many wondered just where Wright’s creativity would go afterwards. I will admit, when the title of his next writer/director project came up, my first thought was a mental flash to the poster for the family comedy, Baby’s Day Out.

However, once the first trailers hit for his new film, that image was thrown aside, as I soon felt I had found my must-see film for the Summer of 2017.

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In Atlanta, Georgia, a young man known only as Baby (Ansel Elgort), serves as the getaway driver for a number of heists, engineered by a man known as Doc (Kevin Spacey).

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L to R: Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Baby (Ansel Elgort)

Unlike a typical getaway driver, Baby is usually plugged into one of his many iPods (the music helps cancel out the ringing of tinnitus in his ears), which serve as a soundtrack to the numerous jobs he pulls.

One day, Baby chances upon a waitress named Debora (Lily James). Her love of music and engaging Baby in conversation, may be just what he’s looking for. But, in order to have a chance with her, Baby has to get out of his ‘job’…which may not be as easy as he thinks.

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While Wright’s Shaun of the Dead focused on 30-somethings, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World focused on teenagers, Baby Driver is his first film to focus on 20-somethings. It definitely helps in a story that deals with a young man named Baby, who is at a crossroads in his life, with a few options…many of which are not the sanest of choices.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby as a quiet-yet-observant young man, who speaks only when spoken to, or when he feels he has something to say. Also of note is the pop-cultural flair that his wardrobe displays, with the white-and-back shirt/vest, looking like it came from Han Solo’s closet. In a sense, Baby is like an earthbound Han: using his driving skills to make money, but not really wanting to get involved in other’s affairs (and like Solo, Baby has a debt or two to pay off!). There is also a sense of dignity to what Baby does, in that while he is helping others commit crimes, he does not want to hurt the innocent.

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Baby (Ansel Elgort)

To Baby, the music on his iPod‘s are a soundtrack to the world he lives in, and to him, the world has to sync up to them in order for him to function (I got a big kick out of him telling some of his cohorts to wait to pull off their job, until he reset a song!).

Along with filmmakers Cameron Crowe and James Gunn, Wright is one of the film filmmakers who really knows how to put together a decent playlist. Every film he’s made has usually featured a catchy lineup, but Driver is the first film he’s done, where it’s playlist is actually hardwired into the film itself!

It’s not just enough that Baby has to be listening to a particular track, but the film’s edits, the firing of guns, and much more, largely keep time to the music being played. Wright even has some fun with this during a coffee-run Baby performs, with a single-take camera move that has some excellent blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-the-first-time song lyrics, graffiti’d onto some surrounding buildings and telephone poles.

The music is often a key to the various car chases and heists that Baby pulls with a slew of other characters. Each one has their own specific eccentricities, with the most violent being Jamie Foxx’s Bats. He’s the guy with a hair-trigger, and his ‘off-the-cuff attitude,’ makes him a character you quickly grow to dread, when the camera lingers on him.

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L to R: Baby (Ansel Elgort, Bats (Jamie Foxx), Darling (Elia Gonzales), and Buddy (Jon Hamm)

Of the other cohorts Baby works with, two of interest are Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzales). Buddy is quick to catch our attention, seeing as he’s the only crew member who seems willing to engage with Baby on a musical level (they soon start comparing playlists at one point!). However, his and Darling’s relationship, almost serves as a cautionary tale of ‘love-on-the-run,’ much like Bonnie and Clyde.

Like Darling is to Buddy, a young waitress named Deborah begins to become a part of Baby’s life. Lily James plays her character as the yang to Baby’s yin. She doesn’t have a big role in the film, but James’ waitress is just as integral to Baby making a change to his life, as Scott Pilgrim was upon seeing Ramona Flowers (however, Deborah doesn’t turn into a battle-warrior like Ramona does). James’ role is brief, but enjoyable.

Reuniting with cinematographer Bill Pope (The MatrixScott Pilgrim vs The World), Wright shows that his crew has an eye for capturing and editing action coherently (in a world where quick edits ala Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay are the norm). There’s method to the madness in many an action scene, and the best part is, we are never at a loss regarding where to focus our attention.

While the concept and story are a new and original journey for Wright, the underlying theme of growing up that has permeated through his other films can soon be recognized by ‘veteran viewers.’ However, the twists and turns that are thrown along the film’s path, keep it from ever getting boring. Plus, while there are a few humorous moments, Driver may be one of the more serious films that the director has ever done. There are some points where Wright just had me on edge regarding what would happen to Baby, or Debora.

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L to R: Debora (Lily James), Baby (Ansel Elgort)

Wright’s films have not been the easiest for most American theatergoers to zero in on. Even 13 years after Shaun of the Dead, he has yet to have a film that has gone mainstream beyond the small amassings of cult followers to his work.

While Hot Fuzz was his way of paying tribute to his love of action films, Baby Driver appears to be his ode to chase and heist films, notably the ones in which the main character, struggles with keeping their moral compass from cracking.

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Final Grade: A- (Final Thoughts: “Baby Driver” is that rare, ‘original’ film buried within a summer of blockbuster sequels, that just delivers as a smart-yet-fast action ride. It is definitely one of Edgar Wright’s less-humorous stories, but it’s musical journey following Baby on his road to self-discovery, is one that is both fast, smart, and an emotional rollercoaster ride.)

Movie Review: Transformers – The Last Knight

Rated Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo

It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, I was in the throes of doing something that I had sworn never to do again: I was anticipating the release of a Michael Bay film.

Ever since I played with Transformers toys as a kid, I like many, dreamed of seeing those crudely-animated cartoons become real-life ‘robots in disguise,’ and so too did Steven Spielberg. It was Steven who wanted Bay to direct his Dreamworks-produced Transformers film, and upon seeing Steven’s name as executive producer (and Industrial Light & Magic bringing these characters to life), I ended my ‘no Bay’ rule (temporarily). Since then, his Transformers films have been the only Bay-directed films I’ve see in theaters.

The 2007 film became the one film that I was willing to give Michael props on. However, in the 10 years since that film, the live-action series has ‘transformed’ into one built on foreign box-office, and Bay’s frat-boy hubris. And now, the fifth installment in the series has been unleashed on the world, with many wanting to know, if The Last Knight can redeem the series from the critical drubbing it took with 2014’s Age of Extinction.

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Several years have passed since the events of the last film. In that time, the Autobots are still ‘illegal aliens,’ and Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has gone into hiding with them. More Transformers have also been coming to Earth recently, with many in the United States being captured and detained by the human-led, Transformers Reaction Force (aka the TRF).

As Cade attempts to help a number of Autobots on the run from the TRF, he soon finds himself rescuing a young orphan named Izabella (Isabela Moner), and encountering a human-sized automaton named Cogman (Jim Carter). Cogman soon leads Cade to England, where along with an Oxford professor named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), is introduced to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins).

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L to R: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), Cogman (Jim Carter)

Burton has concluded, that something big is happening on Earth involving the Transformers, and that Cade and Vivian, are to play an integral part in these events.

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With Age of Extinction, the live-action franchise was diverted in a whole new direction. The world of the Transformers began to open up a bit beyond just the scope of our planet, as we were given hints about the Autobot’s creators, as well as a legendary group of knights, that Optimus recruited to help in the film’s final battle.

With three writers (led by Akiva Goldsman) at the helm this time, The Last Knight faces a new foe, one that has recently caused great anguish for many a film fan in other series: world-building. Apparently, numerous humans have kept hidden their association with giant mechanical robots for centuries. They were there helping King Arthur, they were there to help bring down Hitler, and given shots of numerous famous persons in Sir Edmund Burton’s study, it’s assumed they helped out many, many more humans.

Much of this information is delivered through flashback, but also in a long, drawn-out exposition by Hopkin’s character. He’s basically our ‘Morpheus’ of the piece, telling our heroes what they need to know…but not too much, err we risk not being surprised when we find some things out.

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L to R: Megatron (Frank Welker), and Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel)

Character-wise, there aren’t a whole lot to really root for. Almost everyone has an attitude, tries to ‘talk tough,’ and usually try to one-up the other. Probably the most level-headed character is the returning Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), who has become a reluctant member of the TRF, and seems to be the main guy leading a number of soldiers into action.

Cade and Lennox have had experience with Transformers, but every one of these films needs a human newcomer to their world, and that is Vivian Wembley, whose family history secretly connects her to our story. While being a piece to the film’s overall puzzle, she is sadly forced to banter back-and-forth with Cade, in a typical ‘animosity-equals-attraction’ storytelling form, that doesn’t seem uncommon for a Bay film.

Also adding some ‘girl-power’ to the film, is Isabela Moner, one of the most touted new members of the film’s human cast, who plays an orphaned girl in Chicago, who befriends and fixes outcast Autobots (though this skill is largely left up to our imagination, as the most we have is her spouting technical jargon). Much of the time however, her character’s personality feels like a cross between Scrappy-Doo (seriously, she tries to talk tough to Megatron!), and Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Of all the characters we’re introduced to, it feels like she could be excised out of the film entirely.

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Izabella (Isabela Moner)

We also get a hefty number of Transformers this time around, but most of the time they feel like walk-on ‘set dressing,’ delivering some smart-@$$ lines, and then disappearing from a scene. The most time we get with them is mostly comprised of scenes with Bumblebee, and Burton’s assistant, Cogman. As for Optimus, he’s in the film, but it feels like he only gets about 10 minutes of screen-time.

Along with the task of ‘world-building,’ the bigger problem with Knight, is that even though it is one of the shorter Transformers films (coming in at around 2 1/2 hours!), it feels like it just drags on too long. In a strange way, from it’s first scenes, it feels like it is in a race to juggle it’s myriad subplots, AND hit it’s designated run-time, but it just ends up throwing too much at us, too fast. By the end, I was feeling as fatigued as when I came out of 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. In fact, the film’s pacing and storytelling even feels like a distant cousin to that film (notable in the neverending battle/ticking-clock ending!).

Like the previous films, it tries to make us feel that the human story is the one we are really interested in, but many of us are just here for the Transformers. Industrial Light & Magic continues upping their game here, from in-camera transformations, to some massive set-pieces, that would have been impossible to animate and render a decade ago.

The film also attempts to stitch together all five films, notably in how we get a number of references (and ‘easter eggs’) to previous ones (and some of the different animated series based on the characters). However, there are still questions that they never give us the answers to (like how/when did Galvatron from the last film, become Megatron again?).

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L to R: Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)

For those wanting to see some familiar faces, cool transformations, and speeding vehicles, you’ll get that here…but, you might find yourself having to impatiently sit through a lot of exposition that may surely go over the heads of the more casual filmgoer, as Paramount Pictures and Hasbro seem intent to think you’ll be eager to get sucked into a world that wishes to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Final Grade: C- (Final Thoughts: “Transformers – The Last Knight,” comes off as Michael Bay’s send-off to a world he helped create 10 years ago. While we get plenty of Transformers action and some huge set-pieces, the film sadly gets bogged down by it’s own hubris. The film ends up walking a rather precarious tight-rope, trying to appease seasoned viewers, while acting as a first-step for newcomers into a larger world that will be expanded upon in future installments.)

Movie Review: Cars 3 (with short: Lou)

Feature Review: Cars 3 (Rated G)

Probably out of every property that PIXAR Animation Studios has created, none has garnered more criticism and eye-rolling, than their Cars series. The studio’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, had longed to do a film about ‘talking cars,’ and in 2006, his journey was finally completed.

While many were lukewarm to his idea, I had been aboard the bandwagon ever since the first Cars film was announced. Wheeled vehicles have always fascinated me since I was a kid. My parents met while cruising on the streets of their Iowa hometown, my Dad and Uncles subscribed to magazines like Motor Trend, and over the years, I’d go to plenty of car shows. And of course, as a kid, cars (especially sports cars!) were exciting because of the speeds they could reach!

So, I was highly-entertained by the first Cars when it premiered in theaters in 2006, and being that I was a loyal fan of the series, I went to see Cars 2 when it came out 5 years later.

And now, we get Cars 3, which makes the series the second trilogy the studio has produced, following Toy Story.

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Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been tearing up the racing scene for some time now, but suddenly, a new rookie begins to take the racing world by storm…Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) that is. Storm’s introduction soon changes things, as racing companies begin recruiting faster, and younger sports cars to try and compete against him.

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Pretty soon, McQueen finds himself losing ground, and seeks out the help of a trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), hoping that her skills can help him stay relevant in the world of racing.

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Cars 3 is a notable film, as much like Toy Story 3, it shows a world where it’s characters have ‘matured.’ Unlike Cars 2 that felt like an extended version of the episodic series titled Mater’s Tall TalesCars 3 feels like a distant cousin to the first Cars film. However, it’s a film that puts two tires in the past, and two in the future, straddling the finish line for Lightning, feeling a lot like some sequels these days, that tends to blend the old, with the new.

The previews do make the film out to be an exciting, fast-paced rollercoaster ride, but like the first film, the filmmakers don’t spend a whole lot of time going fast. There’s quite a number of slower scenes, whose more languid pace I can’t help but feel, will definitely have some kids squirming in their seats after awhile.

I did enjoy where the film wanted to go, showing how in the world of sports, the rookie sports star of today, will eventually have to cope with younger and faster rookies coming up around the bend.

That realization hit me personally in the last year, when I realized I had been working at a company, for as long as Pixar’s been releasing Cars films. I’ve gone from learning the ropes as a young man, to giving advice and tips as an adult to some of our younger newcomers.

What really got me excited while watching the film, was hearing and seeing old clips of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman)! The relationship that was established between Doc and Lightning in the first film is one of my favorite PIXAR friendships (and I won’t lie that I got a little misty-eyed seeing The Fabulous Hudson Hornet back in action in some scenes).

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We also get the chance to meet some older racing legends Doc knew, as well as Doc’s trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Seeing some older-model vehicles had me excited for their appearance, but sadly, it feels like they just come-and-go in the film, as quickly as they entered it.

That was something that bugged me throughout the film. We see a number of familiar faces from the first Cars, but they almost feel like minor walk-ons to just let us know they’re alive (and fortunately for some of you out there, Mater probably only figures into about 5 minutes of screentime). Even when it comes to the new racer Jackson Storm, I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing ‘Chick Hicks 2.0,’ given how much interaction he had with McQueen.

Where the film begins to pick up it’s rhythm, is with the introduction of Cruz Ramirez. A trainer at the Rust-Eze Racing Center, Cruz becomes Lightning’s ‘Mater’ for this film. Once Lightning manages to get her out of the world of racing simulators, the film really has some fun moments, punctuated by little bits of comedy from Cristela Alonzo.

Personally, I was hoping the film would pull an Incredibles and have Sally (Bonnie Wright) assume Lightning and Cruz were off having an affair, but then again, the Cars series isn’t known for getting that ‘deep’ with some of it’s subject matter.

A highlight scene regarding Lightning and Cruz, takes place at a demolition derby in Thunder Hollow. It’s a madcap nightmare of mud, flames, and wild camerawork, that still manages to be highly entertaining (just watch out for Ms Fritter!).

Speaking of environments, the level of detail in the natural world of the film, will probably have you scrutinizing the scenes much like I was. Unlike the pastel-hued environs of the first film, the more ‘gritty’ look here, makes the vehicles seem to blend a bit more into their CG world.

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I also really got into the design aesthetic of the newer race cars. It follows the current design trend, where in the last 10 years, we’ve gone from more curved vehicle bodies, to more angular ones, with Jackson Storm’s design looking cool, yet dangerous.

While Cars 3 did entertain me in a more emotional way than Car 2, it sadly doesn’t come close to reaching that finish line that Toy Story 3 crossed. It’s a film that seems to be having it’s own mid-life crisis, struggling with it’s identity, as it tries to pull itself together.

I think when it comes to Cars 3, what you bring with you when you go to watch the film, will determine just what you get out of it once the credits start to roll.

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Short Review: Lou (Rated G)

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Taking place on a school playground, one little boy takes great pleasure in taking playthings away from his schoolmates…until a thing called Lou, decides to teach him a lesson.

I will admit, the first hints of Lou that I saw made me wonder if I was going to even like this character. Of course, I soon found myself wondering how I could have doubted Pixar. It’s introduction is cleverly shrouded in mystery, leading up to a pretty impressive reveal.

Lou ends up being both humorous, and emotional, as well as something that everyone in the audience can either relate to, or learn from, depending on your age and experience. The filmmakers do try to have a little bit of ‘bad-fun’ with how the bully takes things away from the other kids, but also never making you feel that he is justified in doing these things. However, where they take him in the story, went in a direction I didn’t see coming.

Some scenes with Lou went by so quickly, that I almost wanted to slow down the scene to eyeball some of what was done (I guess I’ll just have to wait for the Cars 3 Blu-Ray to do that).

I liked the message that was given here (with no dialogue), and I think some people would agree, it would be nice to have a few Lou’s out in our own world.

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Final Grade for “Cars 3”: B (Final Thoughts: While being stronger than “Cars 2,” “Cars 3” seems to be suffering it’s own midlife crisis, as it tries to straddle the line between it’s past, and it’s future. A decent capper to the “Cars” trilogy of films, as we follow Lightning McQueen on a rather unconventional journey for an animated sequel.)

Final Grade for “Lou”: B+ (Final Thoughts: Pixar’s latest animated short is a simple-and-sweet film that helps to show that oftentimes, niceness can trump selfishness and greed. The film’s animation on Lou is also quite an eye-opener, and will surely leave some with a smile on their face when it ends.)

 

Terrible 2’s Reviews: Speed 2 – Cruise Control

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

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Oftentimes, a studio has a film that they think may be a modest hit, but are surprised when it ends up doing even better than they expected.

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Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, from “Speed”

That was the case in 1994, when Twentieth Century Fox released the movie Speed. Starring Keanu Reeves and Sandras Bullock, the story of a bus with a bomb on it, ended up cracking the Top 10 for box-office grosses that year. With over $350 million made in worldwide grosses (and on a ‘measly’ $30 million budget!), the film helped jump-start a number of careers attached to the film, and seemed to become to the 90’s, what Die Hard was to the 80’s.

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From “The Critic’s” parody trailer, for “Speed Reading.”

Shortly after it’s release, Speed quickly ended up the butt of some pop-culture jokes. Homer Simpson couldn’t recall it’s title in a Simpsons episode, only recalling it was “about a bus that had to speed around a city, keeping it’s speed over 50.”

On the TV show The Critic, it’s writers envisioned a 30-second sequel titled Speed Reading, in which Dennis Hopper’s character rigs a book to explode, and has Reeves’ character try to read it (“Bogus!”).

Of course, Fox already had high hopes for the film upon early word-of-mouth, and after seeing how well it performed over it’s first weekend, they quickly greenlit a sequel.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

When looking at the prospects of a sequel from the first film, there really didn’t seem to be much left to expand upon.

The mad bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) had been taken care of, the bus had exploded, and Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), had ended up in each other’s arms.

So…how could Hollywood mess up that happy ending? In several ways.

The hook for the sequel seemed to elude the filmmakers for awhile, until director Jan De Bont recalled a recurring nightmare he would have, where a cruise ship crashed into an island. This quickly became the jumping-off point for the sequel.

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A scene from the film’s climactic (and expensive) boat crash!

And what of Jack and Annie? Well, according to Speed 2′s story (which encompassed over 6 writers!), Annie was apparently right the first time, about how “relationships based on extreme circumstances never work out.” Apparently, Jack’s involvement in the LAPD’s bomb squad and his wanting to take risks, became too much for her, and they split.

However, she didn’t get far, before she ended up dating another member of the LAPD (and our lead for this film), Alex Shaw (Jason Patric). However, unlike Jack’s high-octane position at work, Alex has claimed he simply does bicycle patrol work at the local beach. This soon turns out to be a lie, when upon taking a driver’s test, Annie runs into Alex on assignment for the LAPD’s SWAT team.

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Annie (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Jason Patric)

That’s our Annie: just wants a nice quiet LAPD officer, but keeps ending up with the guys who are livin’ on the edge, 90’s style!

This story tries to show us that Alex IS actually more of a settling-down guy than Jack, as he convinces her to go on a caribbean cruise, where he intends to propose to her.

However, Alex’s calming getaway plans are put on hold, when a man named John Geiger (played by Willem Dafoe), comes aboard, with a major revenge plan, and his own agenda.

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Doing It For the Money

“I want money, Jack. I wish I had some loftier purpose, but, I’m afraid it all comes down to the money, Jack” – Howard Payne, Speed (1994)

Sure, the creation of sequels to successful films usually means that bigger paydays are in order, but when it came to Speed, many from that film felt there really was no need to continue what seemed a pretty simple story.

However, some of the cast and crew couldn’t say no to a bigger paycheck from the studio.

While Titanic was on many person’s minds that year with it’s rocky production stories and $200 million budget, Speed 2 came up with budget estimates between $100-120 million. To many, that seemed excessive when compared to it’s first film’s more ‘modest’ budget.

One of the most famous stories regarding money and the cast, was Keanu Reeves turning down a payday of over $10 million to appear in the sequel. Instead, Reeves chose to tour with his band (Dogstar), and star in The Devil’s Advocate instead.

Sandra Bullock also was going to turn down the sequel, but she accepted the studio’s payday (for $11-13 million!), with the added caveat that Fox fund a film she wanted to make (1998’s Hope Floats).

Of course, most sequels usually bring back a few familiar, supporting characters to earn a few extra dollars, and that happened with two actors from the first film

Joe Morton returned as LAPD officer McMahon, though having gone down from a Captain’s role, to that of a Lieutenant.

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The legacy of “Tuneman” lives on, in “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”

One of the more memorable minor characters from the first film, was Maurice (Glenn Plummer). In Speed, Reeves’ character commandeers his Jaguar to get onto the bus. In the sequel, Plummer’s character is now living on the island that the ship crashed into. Almost as a nod to the first film, Patrick’s character commandeers Maurice’s new mode of transportation, a boat (also bearing the name “Tuneman,” just like his Jaguar’s license plate).

The writers even throw in a little referential jab, when Maurice finds out Allen is also a member of the LAPD (“Do you know how many hours of therapy I’ve had because of you guys?”).

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Amping up the] Extras

In the first Speed, the passengers on the bus were somewhat one-dimensional, but they still managed to stay entertaining.

When it comes to the passengers that Bullock and Patric encounter, it feels almost like they are there to be examples of ‘possible futures’ for Alex and Annie.

Because it’s a cruise ship, the majority of the passengers our leading couple meet, are married couples with problems of their own.

They range from a newly-wed couple, to a bitter middle-aged couple, and even one couple that have brought their deaf daughter with them, who seems to be having issues ‘communicating’ with her father, on an emotional level.

The film tries to use the daughter as a ‘plot-device’ soon enough. First with the revelation that Alex knows sign-language and can communicate with her, but later, she ends up in a perilous situation, and he springs into action to save her.

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Not quite Dennis Hopper, but Just as Nuts

Though having a minor role in Speed, method-actor Dennis Hopper made his few moment on screen count, as the logically-psychotic Howard Payne. Payne was a former bomb-squad member, who had decided to use his skills to try and claim ransom given his age and health.

For the sequel, the idea seemed to be to find someone who could be even crazier than Dennis Hopper, and who better fits that bill, than the freaky-faced, Willem DaFoe?

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John Geiger (Willem Dafoe)

Yep. If you saw that bug-eyed image of DaFoe online, and wondered where it came from…now you know! That’s one of several shots of him mugging for the camera as this film’s bad guy.

DaFoe’s John Geiger however, just ends up becoming ‘Payne 2.0.’ Upset that his cruise ship designing company jettisoned him after he got copper poisoning, Geiger’s main plans are to get away with the fortune in jewels aboard the ship, but soon just decides to become another ‘mad-bomber,’ and sets the ship on a collision course with an oil tanker later on.

Dafoe does get more screentime than Hopper, but most of the time he’s just mugging for the camera, and being someone whom Sandras Bullock can just scream “let go” to over and over again (seriously, you could make a drinking game out of how many times she says those two words to Geiger).

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Upping the (Effects) Ante

Much publicity was made over the implausible bus-jump in the first Speed film, which used minimal amounts of effects and model-work to tell it’s story.

For the sequel, the boat-crash scene at the end, became it’s centerpiece event. Rather than opt for miniatures, Jan de Bont wanted to do the crash into the island at full-scale.

The scene would cost upwards of $25 million, to construct everything from false buildings, to a recreation of the ship’s bow, which was placed onto 50-ft of underwater track for the sequence.

For less-practical effects, digital effects houses Industrial Light & Magic and Rhythm & Hues, would tag-team on the film.

ILM took on the brunt of the effects work that dealt with the cruise ship (such as using a digital model in the the ship-crash scenes), while R&H handled some of the more low-key shots, such as compositing in propellers and bubbles when Patric’s character attempts to slow down the ship underwater.

They also contributed to the fiery oil tanker explosion at the end of the film, as seen below.

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“Cow.”

Given the debris flying into the air, Rhythm & Hues added a little in-joke regarding director Jan de Bont. It’s not noticeable on the screenshot, but one piece of debris that is thrown into the air from the explosion, is a cow (a little nod to de Bont’s previous summer blockbuster, Twister).

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With Titanic being pulled from their release schedule due to editing and effects issues, Fox was left to hedge their summer bets on Speed 2.

At the time of it’s release, I recall how they really ramped up advertising on it, hoping to draw the crowds in. They even got a segment on Dateline NBC, telling how they filmed the climactic ship crash.

The film did open at Number one it’s opening weekend, but it was considered a ‘soft opening,’ given it’s $23 million weekend draw. However, staying power was not in the cards for Speed 2 like it’s predecessor, and by the end of the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend, it sank from the Top 10 weekly grosses, eventually making back less than $50 million domestically.

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Revised advertising poster for the film, with Siskel and Ebert’s “approval”

The critics weren’t kind to it either, with almost every major critic claiming it had few redeeming qualities…except for two big names.

On their At The Movies TV show, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert claimed that they actually enjoyed it! I still recall Ebert claiming that while it wasn’t a great movie, it was still a good one, and even Siskel was contented enough, that the film ended up getting the duo’s “Two Thumbs Up” approval, which Fox has whoringly thrown onto all of the films’ advertising materials, even to this day.

During the 1997 awards season, the Annual Razzie Awards (a group that consider themselves “The Anti-Oscars”), nominated the film for eight of it’s awards, including Worst Screenplay, and Worst Picture. Out of all the nominations, they did win Worst Remake or Sequel, beating out the likes of Batman & Robin, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

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I was willing to give Speed 2 a chance when it came out, but after seeing it, I felt there really was nothing more to say. To me, the film is still an example of the over-bloated spectacle of 90’s cinema. It’s less of a film, and more of a ‘manufactured product.’

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The one thing I do remember most from that summer-afternoon screening, was the erratic ‘shaky-cam’ during the boat-and-plane chase scene at the end. We often complain about too much ‘shaky-cam’ in our films today, but I recall how just trying to watch this scene was a chore, as I struggled between the camerawork and the editing, to pull together some coherency over what was happening.

Many years later when I saw it was on Amazon Prime, I gave the film another viewing, but found my opinions hadn’t changed much over the years. Most of the time, it just feels like one of those parties where everyone shows up out of obligation…but in truth, noone wants to be there.

At the time, I felt a sequel to Speed should have encompassed a plane, given the greater probability for crashing, let alone a tense passenger scenario. The cruise ship concept was pretty ludicrous overall, given that it was a rather slow-moving ship on a large body of water. I often joke that since we had Speed 2: Cruise Control, if they did a third film with a plane, they could call it Speed 3: Air Conditioning.

The only really good thing I can say about the film, is that I do enjoy what composer Mark Mancina brought to our ears.

Mancina first captivated me with his hyper-kinetic music in the first Speed film, and after hearing his Oklahoma-meets-action stylings for 1996’s Twister, I was prepared for what he had here.

Most notable with this film’s score, is how he takes the original film’s driving strings theme, and adds an extra later of adrenaline to the mix, almost like a second heartbeat. Sadly, there would be no release for the film’s score until 2010, when Lalalandrecords released a 14-track album (limited to only 3,000 copies).

Movie Musings: When supporting characters overshadow a film series

Watching a lot of films over the years, I will admit being greatly amazed by some performances.

From Bob Hoskins making me believe a cartoon rabbit was talking to him, to Orson Welles portraying a mult-millionaire searching for the one thing he could never have, some characters just stick in my mind.

And of course, there are many other roles that I and many others saw and enjoyed…months and years before disaster struck.

I speak of those memorable roles that were then over-analyzed by Hollywood, leading them to make terrible decisions.

“Wait a minute,” they thought. “The audience really, REALLY loved this guy…let’s make a sequel, and bring him back! We’ll give the public what they want…but with much, much more of that particular character!”

And by doing so…they ended up pretty much destroying what made certain characters so memorable in the first place!

In going over a number of film series, I decided to list three ‘repeat offenders’ here, where the character’s first appearance was pretty memorable, but somewhere down the line, they ended losing a lot of that charm as they were inserted into sequels over the year.

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The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenneger)

When The Terminator was released in 1984, Arnold’s name and character were plastered across the majority of the film’s marketing material. However, his role was that of a supporting actor, in the story of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) attempting to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose unborn child will lead the human resistance to victory in the far-off year, of 2029

The film quickly won writer/director James Cameron acclaim…and the studio asking for a sequel. Upon accepting their request, Cameron chose to take a risk, and not give the audience exactly what they had seen the previous time out.

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“Hasta la vista, baby.”

Lightening the atmosphere a tad, he made T2 more of a continuation of the first film, and turned the deadly Terminator, into a protector of the teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong). Terminator 2: Judgement Day, became one of the most famous sequels of all time, and seemed to cement Arnold as a major fixture in the film series, as well as his character’s place in popular culture.

After T2, the studio wanted more sequels, but Cameron was done. Arnold however, wasn’t. And so, it seemed that the future of the Terminator franchise was to continue on…as a vehicle for Arnold to star in (every other actor was largely expendable!).

The importance of stopping Skynet and the rise of John Connor took a backseat in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, as Arnold appeared as an upgraded T-850, an obsolete model also sent back in time as a protection unit, this time to protect John (Nick Stahl) from the T-X (Kristenna Loken).

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“Talk to the hand.”

Unlike the previous Terminator, this newer Arnold came pre-equipped with secret future information (that he only deemed worthy of giving in small doses), and to act as a way to segue us into the future war that the studios seemed to think we were all waiting to see (screw all that “no fate but what we make” BS!).  Sadly, it just felt like a retread of the last film with Arnold, along with the filmmakers trying terribly to make the Terminator as funny as Cameron did.

When it came to the next film 6 years later, Terminator: Salvation attempted to try and refocus it’s audience’s attention to the plight of John Connor (Christian Bale). It would also be the first Terminator film that did not have Arnold’s name as the ‘marquee name.’

Because Arnold was unavailable, the only trace of him was a scene where Connor encounters the first of the new T-800 models (a combination of a body-double and CG-facial replication). Plus, to make this appearance fit, they maintain that time has been messed up, and the production of the T-800 model cyborgs, are being developed sooner than what we saw in the previous films.

Even with a big marketing push by Warner BrothersSalvation failed to make big bucks, and the attempts to make a new Terminator trilogy with it as the first film, were squelched because of the lackluster performance.

In 2015, a new studio and creative team attempted a ‘soft reboot’ with the release of  Terminator: Genisys, which played out like a fan’s internet-fanfiction/wet-dream when it came to Arnold coming back.

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“It is nice to see you…”

If T3 felt like Arnold was getting more screentime, Genisys seemed to become a veritable “The Arnold Show!” We were treated to several fully-CG recreations of Arnold’s 1984 self. An expanded ‘guardian’ role was given to his character this time, having saved and raised Sarah Connor (this time portrayed by Emilia Clarke), who nicknames him “Pops.” Plus, like in T3, this Terminator possesses specific information. While conveniently having no clue who sent him back in time (“those files have been erased.”), but seems to know when the T-800 will arrive at the Griffith Park Observatory, AND where Kyle Reese can be found some time later!

Some may find it odd that I’m critical of just the non-Cameron sequels. In truth, I felt that Cameron’s take on the material (he is the creator after all), allowed Arnold to have a somewhat important role in the story, while also giving the ‘human’ characters a chance to shine.

Sadly, after 30 years, Arnold’s character has become so ‘hardwired’ into the DNA of the Terminator series, that it seems that if someone were to try and do a full ‘system-restart,’ noone would come out.

Once upon a time, The Terminator was a fascinating and memorable character to me, but as he stands now, he’s become little more than “a relic from a deleted timeline.”

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Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones)

When I look back on the Men in Black series, it always seemed to me that the studio and filmmakers blew their chance to really make this film-series interesting. And it all had to do with one character.

With the first film, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), introduced Agent J (Will Smith) and the audience, to the secret world of the Men in Black, and the constant, end-of-the-world crises they struggled to contain.

However, while K was one of MIB’s best agents, he had originally been reluctantly drafted into the organization. The story goes that K as a young man, ended up taking a wrong turn on a desolate country road, where he encountered some MIB agents and an alien. Rather than be de-neuralyzed of the incident, K ended up becoming a MIB agent.

TooMuch-4K left his ordinary life (and a girl he loved) behind, but secretly (at least according to the first film anyways), he longed to return to normalcy.

At the end of the first film, it seemed he had gotten his wish. Agent J had proven himself, and K allowed his partner to de-neuralyze him. Our final image of K showed him in a tabloid headline (left), having come out of a coma, and being reunited with his lost love.

It looked like Agent J was going to be alright. We’d get to see him interact with more agents within the organization, and be off on more adventures, taking on the role of his former mentor.

HA!! THINK AGAIN!!!

Sadly, Agent K was denied his happy ending in the sequels, by being brought back into the agency. With MIB2, K became ‘the most important man on Earth,’ when it was revealed that he had important information on something called, “The Light of Zartha.”

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“Somethin’ I can do for you, slick?”

The writers also got rid of K’s pining for the girl of his dreams, claiming he could not break free of his fascination with the stars above. And so, his wife left him, and he became a Postal employee until Agent J recovered him.

Plus, upon locating the Light of Zartha (aka Laura Vasquez, played by Rosario Dawson), K expounds a number of information on her, also noting ‘how beautiful’ her mother was…planting the thought in our heads that K may not have been fully committed to his lost love as the first film was…?

But, the filmmakers couldn’t stop there!

10 years later, MIB3 once again made K to be ‘the key to the story,’ when Boris the Animal killed him in the past, clearing the way for a massive alien invasion (in our time?), which sent J back in time to save his partner as a young man (played by Josh Brolin).

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A young Agent K (Josh Brolin) & Agent O (Alice Eve)

Oh, and it also turns out that in this film, Kay continues to love putting his hand in numerous cookie jars, as we find out he had affections for co-worker, Agent O (played by Emma Thompson, and Alice Eve).

Sure tarnishes that story subplot we saw in the first film, doesn’t it?

For having such potential to be a great Pandora’s box of alien mystery and creature effects, the writers and filmmakers really ruined a potentially good thing when it came to the developing this series!

Agent K was a fun foil to Agent J in the first film, making it seem like we were largely being primed for some more fascinating stories in future installments (we could only imagine what K discovered on his own over the years, what new things would J find out?). One could easily imagine Agent J being the new top-agent at MIB, and training new rookies to combat new alien threats in future films.

Sadly, that kind of hopeful enthusiasm I had was not to be, and the series just seemed ‘bored’ by the time the third film came out. Tommy Lee Jones got off easy in that sequel, collecting his paycheck for probably 7 minutes of screentime, as Brolin played opposite Smith for most of the film.

It was such a pity to see a film series that could have gotten wholly creative with it’s adventures, just seemed content to just give us minor variations on a theme, with the same duo.

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Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)

In the history of the Walt Disney Studios’ live-action entertainment division, Captain Jack Sparrow is probably it’s most famous male character ever.

As portrayed by Johnny Depp, the slippery-yet-questionable pirate rogue, charmed many upon his debut in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean film, making it a breakout hit that summer, and netting Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Naturally, when a sequel was announced, many hoped for more of Jack, and they got it…boy, did they get it!

toomuch-5While Jack may have simply cared to just get back command of his ship (The Black Pearl) in the first film, the sequels ended up thrusting him into crazier, and even more super-natural stories. Pretty soon, Jack was set upon by Davy Jones, hunted by a Kraken, went to Purgatory, considers living forever, and then, goes searching for the Fountain of Youth.

All marketing for the sequels easily threw Jack Sparrow front-and-center. Unlike his role in the first Pirates film however, the storylines to it’s sequels, just made us less interested in the characters around Jack, and tried to convince us that his character was wholly likable, and deserving of the most screen-time.

This to me, was where the sequels all fall short.

In the first Pirates film, Jack was a bit like a fly, flitting from ear-to-ear, keeping everyone on their toes in the whirlwind story of trading companies, young love, and cursed pirates on the high seas.

toomuch-6The sequels (naturally) resolved that little formality, and suddenly, Jack Sparrow was the guy that everyone wanted a piece of! Suddenly, it was all about saving him, or him having the key to something or other. It often feels so blatant in how Jack is made the center of the film’s universe (much like what was done with Agent K in Men in Black).

Personally, I wish they could have done with Jack Sparrow, what the filmmakers of the Mad Max films did. In those films, Max usually just happens to stumble upon a situation by chance, and is swept up in a new adventure. Sure, Mad Max: Fury Road had Max’s name and him along for the ride, but much like Jack in the first Pirates film, he became an integral part of a pretty large, and wild adventure.

But in the Pirates world, as things stand now, it feels like all roads lead to Captain Jack. Even the latest sequel coming out (Dead Men Tell No Tales), Jack is once again a man being pursued by outside forces, this time a rage-filled captain (portrayed by Javier Bardem), whom Jack chanced upon years ago, and was responsible for the captain’s death. It seems Jack can’t just chance to run across trouble…trouble has to almost always, find him!

Of course, given his penchance for luck, I’m betting if there is another Pirates film, they’ll reveal that Jack is really part-alien, and he’ll take to space in a Treasure Planet-style adventure, with shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in.

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I will admit, there were a number of other characters I could have included on this list, but I sought to whittle them down to three that had quite a track record.

Other contenders included the likes of Mater from the Cars series, Mystique from the current run of X-Men films, and after last weekend, David from the current Alien prequel series Ridley Scott is directing.

However, given how long these three film series have run (and spanned some 10-30 years!), they seemed the best examples of how an interesting character, can be worn down by more information, and bad sequels.

I’m sure many of you reading this can think of some other characters that I can’t even think of right now. Feel free to leave a comment, and share your thoughts on some other characters whom sequels ruined regarding mystery, and mystique.