Well, at least it didn’t have magic skulls and aliens….

December 14, 2008

FROM JASON’S SUNDAY MORNING — It’s no secret that I love the odd crappy television movie. With nothing else to do, I tuned in early today to TNT for 2004’s The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, the first in a trilogy of cheap Indiana Jones knock-offs.

I say Indiana Jones because drama powerhouse Noah Wyle’s (sarcasm!) title character races against an evil cult to recover the mystical spear that supposedly pierced the side of Christ. In The Librarian, the spear gives its bearer unimaginable powers, and “Hitler had only one of the three pieces and it took the combined countries of the world to stop him” (paraphrased).

But while it aspires to Indy status, this made-for-television bad-ass is more like an inexperienced Sherlock Holmes who gets commissioned by the Men In Black to fight the villains from Crocodile Dundee II on behalf of Santa Claus.

A quick overview: Wyle is a 30-something way-overgrad student who’s amassed 22 collegiate degrees, including a handful of doctorates. When he’s forced to leave school, his great intellect, powers of observation and deduction land him a job as a librarian. He learns that his employers aren’t so much bookkeepers as they are the guardians of powerful and fantastic artifacts; they’re more or less those “top men” hired to be curators of the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

At first, Wyle is the reluctant and bumbling genius, but as he gets sucked into a circle of cultish intrigue, he starts to enjoy his role as a globetrotting adventurer.

Yeah, it’s that rough.

Do-nothing director Peter Winther gives us styrofoam and plastic sets. Bob Newhart as the M character looks bored and delivers his lines monotone. There’s a horrid computer-generated parachute, foggy CG junglescapes and temples, and airplane depressurization that doesn’t cause any turbulence, a criminal mastermind who faked his own death, and a romance between Wyle and his motorcycle-riding amazonian bodyguard, Nicole Noone (which allows Newhart to crack, “Trust Noone”).

The effects look worthy of an episode of Charmed, including a couple in the climax that look inspired by Tron. There’s even a moment where Noone pulls an obligatory Matrix jump five or so feet in the air. The scoundrels trying to steal the Spear of Destiny all predictably wear emo-altered black military garb and Neo sunglasses. You’ve got to wonder how hard-up for a paycheck were Newhart and Noah Wyle — though the later hasn’t done very much to earn his household name, other than his 249 episodes of ER.

Oh yeah — for all you Third Rock from the Sun fans out there, Jane Curtain also stars.

And if you want to hear grating dialog, click play:

It is seriously difficult to understand how The Librarian scored as high as 5.9 on the IMDB-o-meter. Maybe there are thousands out there who, along with me, are equally hypnotized by epically low-budget turd-fests.

Maybe that’s the power of Kelly Hu’s midriff, which is honestly what kept me tuned in all 120 minutes — that and the sadistic need to find out just how much further into underfunded straight-to-the-small-screen mediocrity the flick could fall.

Just to get all you Trekkies excited, guess who directed the 2006 follow-up, The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines? None other than Jonathan “Two Takes” Frakes(he also has a small role).

Riker also returned this year to direct The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (perhaps the most unfortunately named chalice ever), which is about vampires and stars Bruce Davison as Dracula.

I’m going to be totally honest: As horrible as was the first in the series, I totally intend to sit and watch the two sequels.


Five more films that get no love

December 10, 2008

FROM JASON’S BARGAIN DVD BIN — I let loose a little back in June about five movies that are completely underrated, and I’ve been thinking about a few more. They’re not Goodfellas or Shawshank, but they’re fine films that just don’t get the respect and attention they deserve.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story — I’m a sucker for biopics, and after watching this 1993 tale seven times I can comfortably say it’s deserving of some praise. Jason Scott Lee is great as the charismatic Hong Kong martial artist who is more or less responsible for breaking a cultural taboo and teaching kung fu in the US. He falls in love with a young American girl played by Jim Carrey’s ex-wife, Lauren Holly (rawr), gets a spot as Kato on The Green Hornet, gets ditched from the lead in Kung Fu, and returns to Hong Kong to make his now-classic films.

The only problem I have with Dragon is that its writers resort to mysticism. They revel in it. Lee’s death is foreshadowed as a demonic manifestation intent on hunting him down in dream sequences. The movie almost comes out and says this Chinese demon is some sort of magical religious punishment for the way he lived.

The Thomas Crown Affair — John McTiernan’s 1999 remake makes a hero of a very clever villain. Pierce Brosnan’s title character masterminds art heists that are — as you discover int he final reel — so much more. This is an intelligent over oversexed cops-and-robbers-and-bounty-hunters story that absolutely makes you want to buy a boller hat, or at least some high-class knock-off art.

The jazzy soundtrack comes courtesy of Sting, Nina Simone, and Bill Conti (think Rocky‘s “Gonna Fly Now”). The art is Monet, Pissarro, and Magritte. But the best acting of the flick, surprisingly, isn’t the work of Brosnan or Rene Russo; see Crown for Denis Leary’s loveable loser cop.

Sneakers — Four years before the remake of Mission Impossible, Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson took his own shot at the team-of-spies genre. How’s this for a cast: Robert Redford, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, and Dan Aykroyd?

This adventure-buddy-comedy is laced with all the early 90s “hacker” tripe, as Redford’s team of super-smart con artists help corporations discover and fix their electronic security problems. A hunt for a code-breaking “black box” lands the gang in trouble with the NSA, CIA, and dirty, dirty Russians, and that’s where the fun begins.

Maverick — Once upon a time in the old west, there was an actor who really had chops and totally didn’t come off as hating Jews. He made a bunch of really great films, including Maverick, and then went certifiably insane/drunk/racist.

His name was Mel Gibson. Everybody loved him, and I loved all his movies. Things have changed a lot since 1994.

Richard Donner managed to clothe this old TV remake in equal parts Gunsmoke, Blazing Saddles, and The Sting. Still, with Jodie Foster, James Garner, Graham Greene, and Alfred Molina chipping in, this wildly wacky western comes off fresh and is filled with fake-outs and twists.

Meet Joe Black — Facing his 65th birthday, a strange whispering voice in his head, and his own mortality, Anthony Hopkins spends his last days on Earth hosting an unlikely and barely corporeal visitor.

Based on “Death Takes a Holiday,” this film puts the anthropomorphized soul of death itself into the body of Brad Pitt. Death, you see, wants to walk among men a while and see what life is all about. He chooses Hopkins’ successful business mogul to show him around, and incidentally falls in love along the way with Hopkins’ daughter (Claire Forlani — who wouldn’t).

This movie is long. It is slow. It is wonderfully, perfectly plodding. You could say it marches at the pace of death. And I love it. I love the use of light, the utter luxury we’re shown, the complicated but honest characters, the love story. I love how at one point Pitt is playing Death playing a human masquerading as another person. That’s acting as someone acting as someone else — and it all comes through expertly. There’s a reason he gets the big bucks (and Angelina Jolie).

If you don’t cry at the end of this film, we can’t be friends. And if you don’t laugh at it’s one blackly (get it?) comedic moment, then you are dead to me.

YouTube Cinema: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

November 14, 2007

Jack Flack always escapes.

FROM JASON’S IMAGINARY COMMANDO FRIEND — What’s better than Dabney Coleman‘s razor-blade wrist-watch, self-retracting parachute, and a collapsible blow gun?

The answer: Elliott from E.T. and an Atari 5200 cartridge laden with top-secret schematics.

Randomly clicking around YouTube last night, I started stumbling across full-length movies that wonderful, blessed people had uploaded. Just a little more mouse action later, and I knew I’d hit the big time — and had to share. Look for YouTube Cinema to be a recurring feature on Quaedam.

The 11-part title that made me stop in my tracks and hunker down for an early morning watching was Cloak & Dagger, the 1984 Richard Franklin film from Universal Pictures.

It’s more than just another 80s adventure movie: It’s a learning experience. In 101 minutes, kids can learn how to solicit rides from strangers late at night, commit grand theft auto, shoot in self-defense, steal video games, and accuse people of child abandonment in an airport concourse.

When I first saw it at age 7, I didn’t quite care about the point of the movie. Instead, I converted parts of my basement and woods behind my house into an obstacle course, and darted around behind trees carrying out my own secret missions. It was the same collateral damage wreaked on parents who let their kids watch The Goonies, Labyrinth, Home Alone, War Games, and Explorers.


Davey Osborne, a.k.a. Henry Thomas — yes, Elliott from E.T. — is obsessed with Jack Flack, U.S. spy of video game and role-playing fame. Flack takes on a life of his own as Davey’s imaginary friend, and is played by Dabney Coleman, who also plays Davey’s father.

While fetching some Twinkies (I’m not making this up) for uber-geeky video game store clerk Morris (whom Andrew likened to Pedobear), Davey witnesses a murder and the victim hands him an Atari 5200 cartridge of the titular game Cloak & Dagger. Nobody believes Davey, though, because the victim’s body mysteriously disappears.

There’s an early question of Davey’s sanity. We learn he’s recently lost his mother and his father wants him to see a psychiatrist. It’s also clear that his obsession with war and espionage is making him cuckoo-bananas.

But it turns out the cartridge — which people constantly and infuriatingly refer to as a disc — holds classified information for the “invisible bomber.” Of course, the plane is easily identified as an SR-71 Blackbird by anybody who grew up in the 80s, but the point is that spies are willing to kill Davey and his whiny gal Friday sidekick to get it back.

From there, the rest of the film is a chase through Houston, which is transformed into a maze of stone bridges, tunnels, and canals and includes plot stop-offs at Japanese gardens, a riverboat tour, and the Alamo.

Just when you think everything might be sorted, missing digits come into play.

Is Jack real?

There is a legitimate question of whether Jack Flack might have some profound metaphysical property.

In several instances, he manipulates his environment — closing a car trunk, changing gears for Davey during a car chase, dragging Davey backward out of the car, then yanking him from a phone booth just before it’s leveled by a charging van. It would be interesting to see what is really happening from an impartial observer, like the surveillance camera footage of Tyler Durden beating himself in Fight Club.

There’s also ambiguity later in the film when Davey begins to decide to grow up: “I don’t want to play anymore!” he yells at Jack.

“Why do you kids always say that? You’re father said the same thing. After all those games of cowboys and Indians, you get tired of make-believe and break your toys,” Jack says.

I’m not sure if this is supposed to hint that Jack is a ghost or spirit of some type; if it was around before Davey was born (as his father’s imaginary friend), then maybe it is an extant entity and not a figment. Or maybe it’s the spirit of childhood imagination. Later in the same scene, as he lies dying on the pavement, Jack tells Davey, “You’re the best playmate I ever had.” It almost slips into It territory.

You can’t miss:

  • The longest walkie-talkie antennas in history.
  • Also, the biggest silencer ever attached to a gun.
  • The E.T. theme subtly worked into the score at touching moments.
  • Screens from the arcade version of C&D, which was never actually released on the 5200 (which was rare enough anyway. I never saw one in the wild, though I hunted for one at the Salvation Army and yard sales for years).
  • Norman Bates’ mom from Psycho (uncredited, but linked on IMDB).

A final word of comfort

Christina Nigra, who played Kim, left the acting business shortly after C&D, sparing the world some of the worst child acting ever to hit the screen. She starred only in a few episodes of Mr. Belvedere, Top of the Heap, and Out of This World before calling it quits in 1991.