This post was originally planned for the 21st to ring in the summer, unfortunately summer decided to ring in by way of a flood event that led to me having to evacuate to higher ground.
Anyway, the evacuation order has been lifted, my apartment is undamaged, and it’s time to embrace summer, with all its fun, up to and including its entertainment.
I made reference in my Star Trek: Into Darkness review to the term ‘fun movies.’ That’s an expression that my family uses for what are effectively B-action/fantasy/science fiction movies that, by rights, should be completely forgettable, but can somehow grab your attention anyway. If they’ve been around a while, they might also be cult classics.
Exactly why this is the case can be hard to pin down. The character arcs are usually cookie-cutter predictability, and if you had to sum up the plot in one sentence, your listener would almost surely say “that sounds terrible.” The stories are usually coherent if simple and probably not apt to stand up to close scrutiny. The acting and dialogue is usually corny.
But somehow ‘fun movies’ seem to always have something that make them enjoyable. In a word, I suppose I’d say ‘imagination.’ Most of the ‘fun movies’ I’ve ever watched have a story, or an aesthetic, or world-building or even a soundtrack that make them greater than the sum of their parts. Crucially, a true ‘fun movie’ should, I think, be fully aware that it’s in no danger of being the major blockbuster of the season, and isn’t going to try to be anything but what it is. On the other hand, while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it also manages to be engaging because it’s laid-back enough to not stop and make fun of itself as it goes along. Indeed, most of the films I think of as fun movies are not comedies. It’s not a cocktail party with sophisticated music and conversation, nor is it a noisy house party with beer and hard liqour and loud music. It’s more like a cozy evening with a few friends, maybe some board games, chips and salsa, and amiable chit-chat. Just the thing on a geeky summer’s evening with friends or family.
So with that in mind, let me recommend a few of my favourite examples.
Sucker Punch: There’s not a whole lot I can say about it that I didn’t say in one of my early reviews. Indeed, I’m not even sure this surreal adventure of courage and perseverance qualifies under the criteria I just listed. Sucker Punch certainly looks like a fun movie on the surface. But Baby Doll’s harrowing voyage of liberation and sacrifice as she struggles to outwit the forces trying to exploit her body and soul has a streak of profundity that puts it one step above its peers. Still, it is a gripping spectacle with cool music, memorable characters and great action. I recall my Dad (who is a karate blackbelt) noting that somebody clearly went to a lot of effort to figure out how a fighting system that incorporates a katana in one hand and a pistol in the other would actually work. I can see how it can be read as a female-empowerment story, but more broadly it can be read as empowering to anybody who recognizes the power and appeal of imagination.
Van Helsing: Hugh Jackman plays Abraham van Helsing, hatchet man for an interfaith order that combats the supernatural evils that beset the world. Sent to Transylvania to aid the gypsy queen Anna Valerious in her family’s quest for salvation, he confronts his ancient nemesis, Count Dracula, and races against the vampire lord to discover the living product of the research of Doctor Frankenstein before Dracula can harness it for his own wicked purposes.
Van Helsing is an example of what I shall call a ‘Public Domain All-Stars’ story. Van Helsing is a centuries-old action hero with a missing memory, not an aged physician, but he’s still going up against Dracula and his Brides, plus werewolves and the treacherous Igor in the hunt for Frankenstein’s creature, and he’s introduced chasing Mr. Hyde through Paris.
It’s a steam punk adventure film with pretty neat special effects, a theme of redemption and human decency informing it, and an intelligent, charismatic villain well aware of what a bastard he is. It’s best illustrated in this exchange between a prisoner and Dracula:
“I would rather die than help you!”
“Oh, don’t be boring. Everyone who says that dies.”
Its comic relief is also quite entertaining, not least because its source, Van Helsing’s jumpy, nerdy gadgeteer sidekick Karl is played hilariously by David Wenham of all people. The pity is that it was clearly planned to be the first in a series, since the fate of the creature and Van Helsing’s lost memories are left hanging, but even for a fun movie, it wasn’t successful enough. Forsooth.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: In full disclosure, I have yet to read Alan Moore’s comic series, and know full well that the movie that shares its name is not well-liked by fans. For what it’s worth, though, on its own merits the movie is very enjoyable. Like Van Helsing it’s a steam punk Public Domain All-Stars lineup of some of the 19th Century’s most famous literary characters.
Sean Connery plays Alan Quartermain. Spending his declining years in his beloved Africa, he’s dragged unwillingly back to London when bizarre war machines begin raiding the secrets of many nations threatening to tip Europe into all-out war. He is initiated into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a society of unique individuals charged with hunting down the mastermind. The brilliant and vicious Mina Harker, the suave but shifty Dorian Grey, the conflicted but intelligent Henry Jekyll (oddly enough captured in Paris again), the noble Captain Nemo and his first mate, Ishmael, an invisible gentleman thief, and a certain American, Special Agent T. Sawyer, set forth on a global quest to avert one villain’s apocalyptic and thoroughly tangled plot.
Possibly the great saving grace of this movie is that, given the fundamental silliness of the premise, the actors rise to the occasion and make it a truly enjoyable experience. The talent makes the best of the willfully campy script, although Connery seems to be sending up his own accent throughout. Besides that, the special effects and the late Victorian steam punk visual style are charming. Sadly the writing noticeably breaks down in quality towards the end of the movie. Cap it with an enticingly open ending and all the touches thrown in for the well-read and it’s just…neat.
Hellboy: Another one based on a comic I’ve not read. Hellboy tells the story of the title character, a foundling child from some other dimension, adopted by the leader of a supernatural task force originally founded to counter the occult machinations of the Nazis. A rookie member of this agency is partnered with Hellboy who, now in his young adulthood (he ages much more slowly than a human) both struggles with relationships with his adopted family and must meet a new challenge as the last holdouts of the Nazi occultists, led by their elder, the renegade sorcerer Rasputin, plot to unleash the cosmic horrors from beyond upon the world at last.
Hellboy probably claims the greatest star power of all of these, with Ron Perlman starring, alongside John Hurt and David Hyde Pierce. They’re all old-school actors who always put their best effort forward, and this is no exception. The director made the movie in part to make the point that Perlman, usually a supporting or villainous figure, could be a leading man, and by Jove he can. His hulking demonic character’s sardonic, laid-back personality, oddly childlike outlook and fondness for kittens are so unexpected as to make him quite unique. Add to that the stakes of a mystery-heavy plot making use of the subtle, creepy elements of Cosmic Horror and you have a recipe for a true fun movie.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator: Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to adapting video games. The director of the Resident Evil movies brings us an expert mountaineer, brought in to lead an expedition to Antarctica, where Weyland Industries has located the buried ruins of an ancient pyramid. Joined by engineers, mercenaries and archaeologists, she discovers that the pyramid is a relic of an alien civilization, built to facilitate their ritual hunt. Not of humans, but the other iconic horror of science fiction film, which the humans must help defeat or else become breeding stock for this ‘ultimate prey.’
The creatures of the Alien franchise and those of the Predator films have crossed over in video game and comic for years, and the conflict is brought to life with exhilarating action and really excellent special effects and set design in this action flick. The juxtaposition of the Aliens’ disgusting creepy viciousness and the Predators’ badass warrior grandeur is exhilarating. I root firmly for the Predators and watching them slaughter the Aliens and take pride in it is weirdly uplifting.
Our human character is a badass in her own right, and the fact that she’s a capable, independent and intelligent woman of colour in a starring role makes this shallow cheesy action flick more progressive than most every Hollywood A-list title going! Lance Henriksen performs marvelously as the founder of the corporation who overshadows events in the original Alien films. Strangely, it’s almost too bad that the movie is such a love letter to its namesakes. Given the vibrancy and diversity of the cast, to go through the usual Alien motions of slowly killing off everyone but the star is kind of a bummer. If, like me, you have any training in archaeology, a lot of that content in this film will give you a massive headache, but once it wears off you’ll realize you were cheering all the way.
Krull: A cult classic if there ever was one. Released in 1983, Krull is a little like ElfQuest in that it hedges its bets beween being science fiction and fantasy.
The world of Krull is a medieval world of swords, castles and strange ancient magics. But it is under threat from the Beast of the Black Fortress, who descended upon them from the stars to despoil and enslave.
When the newlwed Prince Colwyn’s beloved Princess Nyssa is kidnapped by the Beast to prevent the prophesy of salvation their marriage fulfills, the aged lore master Ynir sends him on a quest to claim the Glaive, an ancient magic weapon, and raise an army of mercanries, with a bumbling sorcerer and a gloomy but noble cyclops for good measure, who risk everything to assail the Black Fortress and defeat the Beast once and for all.
A hero leading a ragtag bunch of misfits to storm the evil tower, kill the bad guy, rescue the princess and save the world. Can’t get much more archetypal than that. Still, the fact that all this occurs in what seems to be a head-on collision between an Arthurian-style epic and a Space Opera makes it unique enough to be memorable. It’s in the same offbeat tradition as contemporaries like Dark Crystal. Personally, I also have a fondness for pre-CGI special effects. Throw in the frankly amazingly awesome score by James Horner and it ends up being really cool. Also, watch for Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson as secondary characters!
Cowboys and Aliens: This movie more than any of the others genuinely surprised me. Daniel Craig plays an amnesiac stranger wandering into an Old West cattle town, drawing hostile stares both because he’s apparently a wanted man and because of the strange iron bracelet on his wrist that won’t come off. After picking a fight with the local ranch owner (Harrison Ford) the crowds gather for a showdown just as strange flying machines descend on the town and start whisking people away. The various factions in town put aside their differences to pursue the kidnappers, joined by a mysterious lady who seems to understand these beings and our hero a little too well.
By the time I was a third of the way into this film I was thinking, “Now wait just a minute, who gave this movie permission to kick ass?” Because it does. The characters are shockingly relatable, the dialogue is above-average (slightly) for this kind of movie, and the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’ that informs the plot and the fact that the final battle runs on actual strategy rather than the winner being whoever the plot needs it to be, makes it worthwile. Olivia Wilde’s nude scene was kind of jarring, beautiful though she is; the aliens’ motivation is pretty bland, and the aliens themselves not terribly memorable (more Men in Black than Star Wars, alas) but the Cowboys side of the equation makes up the difference.
John Carter: Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic John Carter of Mars novels, this is probably the most badly-served movie ever. Its marketing was hopelessly half-hearted and it’s too bad because it is actually really cool.
John Carter is a disaffected ex-soldier and gold prospector on the run from the law in post-Civil War America when he accidentally stumbles upon a secret gateway to another world, Mars, or Barsoom, as the natives call it. Stumbling through this world of conflict and harsh backstabbing politics, he becomes the wild card in an ancient overlord race’s plot to wipe out the peoples of Barsoom and harvest the planet for themselves.
Making friends among different peoples, winning the regard of Princess Deja Thoris, John Carter redeems himself as the savior and uniter of Barsoom.
John Carter is similar to Krull in premise and scope, and Carter is besides a quite faithful adaptation. It lacks the level of bleakness in the original material but pays lip service to it. Deja Thoris is a fairly badass character but generic and two-dimensional compared to the formidable leading ladies of AVP or Sucker Punch. Besides which, the world laid out by Burroughs’ original stories left a big opportunity for racially diverse casting (for the characters that weren’t ten feet tall and/or green at any rate) which was tragically missed. For what it’s worth, though, the story, dialogue and the themes of friendship and unity really make the difference, a weirdly charming cross between Narnia and Mass Effect.
Fun movies are necessarily very subjective, so I make no guarantee about how you’ll feel about any of these. There are others worth looking into: the Diesel Punk adventure Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, camp horror films the Mummy and the Mummy Returns, or Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts are well worth inquiring after as well.
Have a nice summer.