This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Agony Booth review: Jaws 3-D vs. Superman III

The respective third entries of the Jaws and Superman series were both released in 1983. Neither is held in high regard by fans, and this article goes into which is the worse of the two.
1983 gave us classic films such as Return of the Jedi, Octopussy, Sudden Impact, and the Stephen King triple-punch of Cujo, Christine, and The Dead Zone. Among the year’s films that weren’t so classic were, in an interesting coincidence, the respective third entries of the Jaws and Superman series.

It goes without saying that the first entries of these two series are classic movies. Both Jaws 2 and Superman II were successful as well (although I didn’t much care for the former), which inevitably led to third installments. But those third installments are regarded by most as the point when these two series began to decline creatively.

So, which is worse? Let’s take a look.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

The first two films take place in the fictional town of Amity. This entry attempts a change of pace by setting the action at SeaWorld in Florida. The main characters here are Martin Brody’s grown up sons Mike (Dennis Quaid), who works at SeaWorld, and the visiting Sean (John Putch).

The two brothers are enjoying a weekend at said amusement park with Mike’s colleague/paramour Kay Morgan (Bess Armstrong) and Sean’s new girlfriend Kelly Ann Bukowski (Lea Thompson). But, wouldn’t you know it, a great white shark has shown up in the park to cause trouble. This time, however, the shark has a reason for causing havoc. The park employees manage to catch a smaller shark, which turns out to be the offspring of this film’s monster. The fact that the little shark dies while in the park’s custody doesn’t help matters, either.

As with the previous entries, there are characters who are skeptical about the arrival of such a massive killing machine. Among them is the park’s manager Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett Jr., just after he won his Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman). This film has a Quint-like character as well in the form of hunter Phillip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkindale).

One thing leads to another and people, including FitzRoyce, get killed, etc. The shark dies again, of course, but in the most ludicrous way possible. During the climatic scene in the park’s underwater control room, the shark smashes through the glass and wiggles its head through the opening to devour whoever it can. But Mike suddenly sees the partially-eaten FitzRoyce in the shark’s mouth, holding a grenade no less. If any ending shouted deus ex machina, this is it.

And what was the point of this shot, anyway?

Superman III (1983)

Business tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) blackmails his employee Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) into using the computer skills that he got out of nowhere to control the world’s oil supply. When the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve) intervenes, Webster tells Gorman to find some Kryptonite they can use to kill him. Instead, Gorman creates synthetic Kryptonite that turns Superman into a super-jerk. This leads to the film’s most memorable sequence, when Superman splits into two beings, one good and one bad. The two proceed to duke it out before Good Superman triumphs and goes off to battle Webster, now controlling a super-computer that was built from the Arby’s napkin scribbles Gus keeps in his pockets.

When this super-computer produces the correct type of Kryptonite, Gorman turns against Webster and saves Superman. The Man of Steel manages to destroy the super-computer, saving the day.

Which is worse?

Jaws 3-D is basically its two predecessors but relocated to SeaWorld. I’ve read a couple of reviews of the film that said the film’s only saving grace are the early scenes between the Brody brothers and their lady friends. Indeed, the cast itself is pleasant enough. I actually chuckled at the moment when Mike and Kay startle Sean and Kelly as the latter two lovebirds are getting cozy in the water.

It’s once we get into the scenes that were the draw of this picture in the first place that everything turns into déjà vu. The fact that the park employees basically asked for trouble by capturing that little shark in the first place doesn’t help. Hence, it’s actually easier to side with the shark this time around.

Additionally, the film was released during the brief resurrection of 3-D in the early ’80s. But Jaws 3-D is quite dull with or without the 3-D. The previous year saw the release of Friday the 13th Part III, which is quite entertaining even without the 3-D, and like many of the other entries in the Friday the 13th series, it did a terrific job at emphasizing the “fun” in “dumb fun”.

As with Jaws 2, the footage of the shark is excessive here, making it easy to see why it became a punchline in the sequels. The scenes with the tourists seeing body parts as they tour the SeaWorld aquarium lose whatever potential they may have had, because it clearly looks like people walking in front of a cheesy green screen effect.

An interesting side note: the producers of the first two Jaws pictures, Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, were asked to produce this installment as well. But they wanted to go a different route and make the third film a spoof picture titled Jaws 3, People 0. But Universal wanted another straight scare fest, which led to Zanuck and Brown bowing out. The irony here is that the final picture actually made some people laugh, but for all the wrong reasons.

One could say that Superman III suffers from the opposite problem. It doesn’t rehash anything from its two predecessors, but goes in a more lighthearted direction. That, in itself, is not the problem. After all, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was more lighthearted than its predecessors, but that movie worked because the humor was never forced and fit naturally into the story.

Superman III‘s attempts at more humor, however, go wrong because they’re just cheap gags and nothing more. Some saw Richard Pryor’s casting as a bad omen for the film, but I thought his bits were the funniest of the film, even if they added nothing to the story. As mentioned earlier, his computer skills come out of nowhere, especially considering that the movie begins with Gorman looking for a job. It was other parts of the movie, such as Webster’s sister Vera (Annie Ross) basically getting Borgified by the super-computer, and the two traffic lights fighting each other that had me going “WTF?” even as I watched the film when it originally came out.

Many fans have stated that the film would have been better if the super-computer had turned out to be Superman’s nemesis Brainiac. I can certainly understand that stance, as we already had Lex Luthor in the previous two films, so why not use another classic Superman villain? Instead, we get a moment that’s literally a video game as Webster attempts to stop Superman with missiles (complete with the same sound effects used by the arcade games of the time).

The moments where Superman is fighting himself are memorable, with Reeve clearly having the time of his life playing a bad guy. By itself, this idea could have conceivably carried the entire movie, had it been done with more care. Instead, all the evil that Superman does is confined to blowing out the Olympic torch, straightening the leaning Tower of Pisa, getting drunk and sleeping with Webster’s assistant Lorelei Ambrosia (Pamela Stephenson). And no, I haven’t forgotten him ripping open that tanker and spilling its oil into the ocean, but the setup is contrived anyway and nothing is done with this plot element (wouldn’t other tankers have come to assist, rather than just having those guys sit there until Good Superman comes by to fix everything?).

Clark’s scenes with his Smallville sweetie Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole) are also pleasant. So it was fitting that O’Toole would later play Clark’s mom in the series Smallville. These Clark/Lana scenes do somewhat mar the touching Superman/Lois scenes of the previous two films, not that it concerned Superman producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who were pissed off that Margot Kidder took them to task for firing original Superman director Richard Donner, and punished her by giving Lois only two scenes in this installment.

Although the Salkinds put out the equally misguided Supergirl the following year (Reeve was offered a cameo as Superman in the film, but declined) and then went on to produce a Superboy TV series, Superman III would be the last Superman feature film with the Salkinds’ involvement. This may have been a good thing, were it not how all the subsequent Superman movies (and I don’t mean just Superman IV) turned out. Like the four Star Trek movies with the Next Generation cast, Superman III has some good ideas that are unfortunately outnumbered by the bad.

While both of these films are held in low regard, neither series was finished just yet. Both of them would get their respective fourth entries in 1987, which would drag down their legacies even more (but that’s a story for another time).

Of these two third entries, though, I would say Jaws 3-D is the worse of the two. For all of Superman III‘s faults, it still had the elements that could have potentially made it a great movie. Jaws 3-D, on the other hand, has decent early scenes involving the people we’re supposed to identify with, but nothing exciting emerges from that setup.

Superman III also has the edge in that its computer-related material proved to be the inspiration for the classic comedy Office Space. A bad movie that ends up as the inspiration for a good one is certainly noteworthy.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Agony Booth review: Voyager vs. Xena

This article looks at two of the worst series finales ever.
In 2001, just a few months prior to the tragedy of 9/11, two series aired their final episodes: Star Trek: Voyager and Xena: Warrior Princess.

Although ratings for Voyager had dropped considerably during its run, the series remained UPN’s highest-rated show (which isn’t saying a lot, considering what else that network gave us). It also became the last Trek show to be a continuation of what started with Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the next Trek series, which debuted on UPN shortly after 9/11, was the prequel series Enterprise.

Xena was a different story. The title character (played by Lucy Lawless) first appeared in a trilogy of episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. She initially attempts to kill the demigod, but during the course of said trilogy, dramatic turns emerge involving the army she’s leading. Xena eventually agrees to join Hercules to fight her own army, becoming a hero in the process. The first season of Hercules concludes with Xena and Hercules, who have become romantically involved, bidding farewell to each other as she goes off to embark on a new journey of heroism and redemption.

The first episode of Xena’s own series, “Sins of the Past”, aired in the fall of 1995. Xena returns to her home village to reconnect with her mother, only to find it under siege by the warlord Draco (Jay Laga’aia). But Xena thwarts him with the help of a spirited young girl named Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), whom Xena had rescued from thugs earlier in the episode. The episode concludes with Xena agreeing to allow Gabrielle to travel with her.

It didn’t take long for Xena to become a hit series in its own right. So much so that by its third season, the show was dominating the ratings over both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well as Hercules (to the annoyance of Kevin Sorbo).

Both Xena and Star Trek: Voyager premiered in 1995, and both shows aired their series finales in 2001. Unfortunately, both finales were massively disappointing. But which one was a bigger letdown? Let’s find out.

Star Trek: Voyager: “Endgame”

Voyager‘s finale concludes the ship’s seven-year trip back to the Alpha Quadrant. It actually begins 16 years after the previous episode (“Renaissance Man”) with an older Janeway, now an admiral. As her fellow crew members celebrate the tenth anniversary of Voyager getting home, she embarks on a daunting plan to travel back in time in order to help Voyager get home quicker.

We see Janeway’s reasons for doing the time-travel/reset button motif Voyager became infamous for. It turns out Tuvok is in a mental institution, and Chakotay and Seven of Nine are both dead.

With a time travel doohickey that some Klingons pulled out of their asses, Janeway travels to the end of Voyager‘s seventh season in a shuttlecraft that can armor up like the Batmobile. She informs her younger self that a cloud full of wormholes that was guarded by Borg ships has a passage that can take them straight home. Captain Janeway is open to this at first, but then gets pissed off at her older self when the crew discovers the route home is part of what’s called a “transwarp hub”, which contains other wormholes leading to other sectors of the galaxy.

This prompts Captain Janeway to get the hell out of the area and also order her crew to find a way to destroy the hub. The captain’s reasoning is to stop the Borg once and for all (which makes the crew’s previous Borg encounter “Unimatrix Zero” pointless, as the civil war Janeway attempted to start there obviously didn’t happen). But Admiral Janeway is adamant that they should use the hub to go home immediately, and to that end, she informs her younger self that Seven will die three years later on a mission, and Chakotay, who’ll be married to Seven by then, will be depressed forever afterward (not that he ever seemed happy on the show in the first place). And on top of all that, Tuvok will succumb to a mental condition unless he receives a cure that’s only available in the Alpha Quadrant.

Needless to say, the crew finds a way to (as Captain Janeway puts it) have their cake and eat it too. Admiral Janeway boards the Borg ship and gets assimilated by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige). But it all turns out to be a trick, as Voyager manages to (somehow) blow up everything Borg and arrive home, just as the end credits come up (literally).

Xena: Warrior Princess: “A Friend in Need”

Xena‘s finale begins with Xena and Gabrielle enjoying a starry evening. For some reason, Xena decides that a change of scenery is in order and recommends they go to Egypt (I guess she liked the pyramids during her previous visit there in “Antony & Cleopatra”).

They’re interrupted by the appearance of a young man named Kenji (Mac Jeffrey Ong), who informs Xena that a woman from Japan named Akemi (Michelle Ang) sent him to find her. On the boat taking them there, Xena informs Gabrielle that she first met Akemi while in China with her lover Borias (Marton Csokas). Xena and Akemi eventually became friends, with Xena teaching her that famous pinch, to Gabrielle’s chagrin, as she was never taught it.

Our heroines arrive to find the city of Higuchi in flames and surrounded by an army. They and Kenji swim to shore. As they save the city, Xena further reveals that Akemi’s father is Yodoshi, who is an evil ghost who enslaves the souls of the dead. Xena also states that Akemi killed Yodoshi, but then committed ritual suicide for doing so. This led Xena to fulfill Akemi’s wish, which was to take her ashes to her family shrine. En route, however, townspeople attempted to stop Xena, which led to Akemi’s ashes ending up in a gutter. This led to Xena grabbing a torch to fight off the angry mob, which in turn led to the city going up in flames.

In the present, Xena elects to fight the approaching army alone, and allows herself to be killed by Yodoshi’s general Morimoto (Venant Wong) in order to fight Yodoshi. Gabrielle soon realizes that Xena is dead when she finds Xena’s severed head and learns of a method that can restore her to life. But that method must be used before the sun sets.

But even as a ghost, Xena is able to fight armies practically with one hand tied behind her back. However, as this is the final episode, there’s a twist. After Yodoshi is vanquished and Gabrielle attempts to revive Xena, the Warrior Princess stops her. She informs Gabrielle that the souls of those who died when she accidentally set Akemi’s town on fire must be freed, and that’s only possible if Xena stays dead.

Saddened, Gabrielle begs Xena to not let this be, but Xena assures her she’ll always be with her (although it sounds like Xena will be with Akemi more). As the sun sets, Xena fades away. The series concludes with Gabrielle on a boat telling Xena’s ghost that she’ll go to Egypt (hopefully Gabrielle will at least keep in touch with her sister). Xena repeats her spew that she’ll always be by her side, as the boat sails off.

Which finale was the bigger letdown?

By the start of its seventh season, Voyager and disappointment were as common a combination as spaghetti and meatballs. So it’s not really surprising that “Endgame” was simply a rehash of all the things that didn’t exactly endear the series to Trek fans, such as time travel, technobabble, making the Borg less scary, visuals tossed onto the screen just because they look cool, and of course, that infamous reset button.

The only difference is that this time, the ship actually makes it home. But even any impact that may have had is diminished by the fact that we barely see the ship in the Alpha Quadrant. The ending credits of the episode are shown and the episode fades to black when we barely see Voyager coming towards Earth.

Even more damning are the lengths Admiral Janeway is willing to go to in order to make things better. Yes, she’s basically saving three of the regulars from a tragic fate, but she’s also erasing 26 years of history in the process. At the beginning of the episode, we see the daughter of Naomi Wildman at the Voyager reunion. This young girl has now been erased from history thanks to Admiral Janeway’s actions. There’s also the fact that all the crew members who died during the course of the series before “Endgame” don’t get so much as lip service here. At least when Superman turned back time to bring Lois back to life in the original 1978 movie, it was only a matter of moments. That, and the great job Christopher Reeve did at putting the needed angst into the scene, allowed audiences to accept that moment in the film, even though it was ludicrous. “Endgame”, however, is basically an amplification of Janeway’s blatant disregard for others, only this time it’s on her own personal whim and not due to any Starfleet regulations.

Ironically, Xena‘s finale is actually the more disappointing of the two. Because while “Endgame” is basically the same old/same old, “A Friend in Need” basically spits in the face of everything the series established. Xena and Gabrielle’s friendship became the core of the show (and the subtext many took from that relationship only added to the appeal). So it’s quite disheartening when Xena tells Gabrielle that she must leave her, even though previous episodes would’ve gone out of their way to have the two remain united.

There’s also the fact that, with this show taking place in Japan, we have another Xena backstory that Gabrielle knows nothing about, even though one would think she and Xena know all about each other by this point. And why didn’t Xena ever teach her the pinch, anyway? Also, considering that this series had its share of story arcs, this sudden trip to Japan just comes out of nowhere. In contrast, both the finales for TNG (“All Good Things…”) and DS9 (“What You Leave Behind”) felt like the culmination of those respective series.

At the time of Xena‘s run, I frequently visited the show’s official message boards. Within days of airing, “A Friend in Need” generated such discontent from fans on that board that I’m surprised the whole website didn’t implode. An exaggeration, yes, but I honestly doubt there was a single Xena fan who tuned into the finale expecting to see her decapitated.

Xena was definitely the better show, and perhaps this is what makes “A Friend in Need” all the more terrible, and definitely the worse of the two finales.