SAHARA is Hot Summer Fun

Do you want a summer movie that is full of fun characters, great actors, explosive action, an enjoyably ludicrous plot, and a great sense of humor? Then do I have the movie for you!

That movie is Sahara, released in 2005 and starring Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn, and William H. Macy.

Images: Paramount Pictures

Now, let’s get the bad news out of the way first. This movie bombed, and it bombed hard. Its total box-office take barely covered half of the money it took to make and distribute. It flopped so hard (it lost around $105 million) that Clive Cussler, the author of the book on which the film was based, sued the film’s producer and production company. It sounds like Cussler basically argued that the movie bombed because he wasn’t consulted on the script, which doesn’t make him sound like an arrogant jerk or anything.

The movie was supposed to start a series, but it flopped so hard that the series never materialized, and likely never will. The movie’s opening credits even proclaim it to be “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure,” implying that it is one of many. Sadly, it isn’t. The movie didn’t get great reviews, it has a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the “Critics Consensus” being “a mindless adventure flick with a preposterous plot,” a condescending dismissal of an extremely enjoyable film. Reason No. 20394 why I don’t like Rotten Tomatoes.

Because this movie is great. I unironically love it. Yes, the plot is ludicrous, but the movie is clearly aware of its own ridiculousness and pokes fun at itself multiple times. The actors have wonderful chemistry, the action sequences are exciting, the soundtrack is great, and the overall vibe is James Bond meets Indiana Jones. It’s a damn shame the intended series never materialized; I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters. Although I could potentially see this property being revived as a Netflix series or something, that could be fun.

Clive Cussler has been writing Dirk Pitt novels since 1976. I’ve read a few of them, and they are indeed ridiculous but also quite a bit of fun. In this sense, the movie is a very accurate approximation of Cussler’s work. His books are airport novels, not particularly “artistic” or “literary” but who cares? They’re lots of fun and I have no problem with them. Sahara is the eleventh book in the series and was published in 1992. Dirk Pitt is an adventurer in the classic mold of pulp adventure heroes, complete with monosyllabic tough-guy name, who has all kinds of ridiculous adventures and is a big hit with the ladies.

He is perfectly embodied in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, whose relaxed surfer-dude charm and effortless charisma make him an extremely likable action hero. But the real scene-stealer for me is Steve Zahn as Dirk’s best friend Al Giordino. I love Al so much, he’s one of my all-time favorite movie sidekicks. Everything he says is so gosh darn funny. He gets all the funniest lines and his wry delivery of them is just perfect. Zahn and McConaughey have flawless chemistry and are entirely believable as two guys who have been best friends for their entire lives and been on all kinds of wacky adventures together. You get the feeling that Dirk and Al know each other so well that they could finish each other’s sentences.

The movie’s fantastically-ludicrous plot involves…well, I’ll let my good buddy Al handle that for me. “Hey,” Al says to Dirk late in the film, “you know how it is when you see someone that you haven’t seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they’re married to some woman that hates them, and they got, like, three kids who thinks he’s a joke? Wasn’t there some point where he stood back and said, Bob! Don’t take that job! Bob! Don’t marry that harpy! You know?”

“Your point?” Dirk asks him.

“Well,” Al continues, “we’re in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we’re gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?”

“I don’t know,” Dirk replies. “It seems to be working so far.”

That quote perfectly encapsulates the movie’s self-aware sense of humor, as well as giving you some idea of what the plot is about. Something is polluting the water in Africa with deadly red algae, and if it reaches the Atlantic it’ll spread across the globe and basically everyone will be doomed. Tied into this is a lost Civil War ironclad that, uh, somehow ended up in the Sahara Desert. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous, but when the movie is this enjoyable, who cares how ridiculous it is? For what it’s worth, if I recall correctly the book’s plot is even more ridiculous, since somehow Abe Lincoln himself was on the Civil War ship. You know, the ship that ended up in the Sahara Desert. The movie, wisely, omits this detail.

The villains behind the water-poisoning are a corrupt French businessman named Yves Massarde and an African dictator named General Kazim. Massarde is played by Lambert Wilson, who you might remember as The Merovingian from the two Matrix sequels, although he has an extensive filmography dating back to 1977. Kazim is played by a wonderful and tremendously underrated English actor named Lennie James, who is perhaps best known for playing Morgan in The Walking Dead. I love James as an actor, he elevates everything he’s in. These two very capable actors make for a dastardly pair of villains.

The rest of the supporting cast is also a lot of fun. Penelope Cruz plays Dr. Eva Rojas, a World Health Organization scientist investigating the cause of the red algae plague. Eva is tough, smart and capable, and although it is inevitable that she and Dirk will eventually hook up, it is very much to the movie’s credit that this doesn’t happen until literally the last scene in the movie, making her more than a disposable love interest or damsel in distress.

Dirk and Al’s boss, crusty Admiral James Sandecker, is played by William H. Macy, another actor who I don’t think is capable of giving a bad performance. There’s also Rudi Gunn, Dirk and Al’s nerdy pal who plays an important role in saving the world. Rudi is played by Dwight Schrute himself, Rainn Wilson, and is another very likable sidekick.

The movie also has a great soundtrack. It uses pop music in a manner similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy. The music serves the movie very well and contributes greatly to its already considerable entertainment value. I also quite liked the musical score done by Clint Mansell, known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, and whose composition “Lux Aeterna” for Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for A Dream is one of the most haunting pieces of cinematic music I’ve ever heard. I haven’t seen Requiem for A Dream (and I don’t intend to given how disturbing it is supposed to be), but Lux Aeterna is an incredible piece of music.

The movie is also action-packed and is full of memorable and creative action sequences, my favorite of which is probably when Dirk fights an-uber henchman on a helicopter landing tower surrounded by solar panels. An uber-henchman is a term I just invented for the guy in every action movie who’s the particularly badass and resilient bad guy, the main villain’s second-in-command who takes a ton of punishment throughout the movie but always comes back for more, before dying in a spectacular fashion. For example, one of my favorite uber-henchmen is Mr. Stamper from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. In Sahara, Dirk defeats the uber-henchman by drop-kicking him off the helicopter landing tower, where he subsequently crash-lands on a solar panel. It’s a very satisfying villain death. And the film’s action-packed climax involves a helicopter, a vintage car, dynamite, and the aforementioned Civil War ship in the middle of the desert.

Sahara has everything you could want from a summer movie. It’s got great characters who are played by actors who have awesome chemistry with each other. It’s got despicable villains, exciting action, a goofily ridiculous plot, and a groovy soundtrack. It’s a ton of fun and it ends on a perfectly upbeat note that leaves the viewer just feeling good. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and everyone has a good time.

What’s not to like?

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Rocketman Soars, Dark Phoenix Stumbles

I saw two movies in the theater this weekend. One of them was really great, the other was just okay. Let’s talk about ‘em.

First up is Rocketman, the critically acclaimed Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton as the legendary singer. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie, the musical sequences were exhilarating and the songs were so well done that the first thing I did when I got home from the theater was hop on iTunes and buy the soundtrack.

Paramount Pictures

The film charts Elton’s life from his childhood, where he was born as Reginald Dwight, to his rise to the heights of fame and his perhaps inevitable fall to the depths of substance abuse and depression, to his attending rehab and getting the scattered fragments of his life put back together. It’s a familiar arc, and this kind of story has been seen before in other biopics, musical or otherwise.

But it’s told with skill, great acting and awesome music. Like many people, I have a great deal of affection for Elton John’s music, and the film paints a compelling portrait of his life. The movie even finds creative ways of incorporating the songs into the dialogue and the story, making them an integral part of the film. The movie takes a fantastical approach to the music, frequently turning the songs into elaborate musical numbers.

It’s a very effective approach to the material, and I loved how the filmmakers were able to use the songs to help tell the story. It’s not exactly a realistic film in that sense, it’s more of what you might call a musical fantasy. It works like gangbusters and is also thematically appropriate given that Elton’s drug use sometimes turns his life into a blur.

It also doesn’t shy away from the more sordid aspects of Elton’s life. I don’t know how much the movie’s story deviates from the actual details of Elton’s life, I’m assuming it takes some liberties simply because movies based on real events and people often do. Regardless, the movie’s story is very cohesive and easy to follow. Scenes of Elton’s drug abuse and other addictions can be hard to watch, but the movie treats the material with respect and never descends into hopelessness.

Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, and he does all his own singing. I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to take on the role of such a beloved entertainer, and not only to sing well but to sing like Elton John. I thought Egerton did a terrific job, and I sincerely hope he’ll get some Oscar buzz once awards season rolls around.

The sets and costumes are fantastic and the movie ends with a montage showing pictures of the real Elton in some of the over-the-top costumes he wears in the movie. It shows respect and love for Elton while also showing how faithfully the movie reconstructed the details of his life. The movie isn’t always easy to watch but the experience is very enjoyable and the music, of course, is excellent.

Much less enjoyable was Dark Phoenix, the latest (and last, for now) entry in the long-running X-Men series, which has been going for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, the series goes out on a low note. Dark Phoenix isn’t a completely terrible movie, but it’s certainly not very good.

Basically, a rescue mission to space goes awry and Jean Grey gets blasted with some kind of terrible cosmic power, and she starts to manifest dangerous and unpredictable abilities, leading her friends the X-Men to attempt to save her. If the story seems familiar, it’s probably because the X-Men series has told it before, in thee 2006 movie X-Men: The Last Stand. The Dark Phoenix storyline was one of several subplots in that much-maligned movie, and never got much time to breathe, so here it is again. And while it is nice that one of the most acclaimed storylines in all of superhero comics now gets an entire movie to itself, I just wish that the results had been more satisfying.

20th Century Fox

This movie has some very basic problems. The first is that the Phoenix Force or whatever it is that’s possessing Jean is given very little explanation. There are some shape-shifting aliens who want to capture Jean so they can use the power for themselves, but these aliens are given virtually no background and it is never clear who they are or what they want. They’re a vaguely evil presence that shows up periodically. It’s impossible to give a damn about them. One of the greatest sins of this movie is that it casts Jessica Chastain as a shape-shifting alien and then gives her nothing to do except glower. These villains, if you can even call them that, are a complete bust.

The other problem is that Jean never does anything evil enough. Pretty much all she does is (spoiler alert) accidentally kill Mystique and then flip a few cop cars. I haven’t read the Dark Phoenix comics, but the internet informs me that in the comics the Dark Phoenix destroys a solar system and kills five billion aliens. In the movie, all Jean does is accidentally kill one X-Man, and that’s about it. The movie doesn’t do nearly enough to sell her as a galaxy-destroying threat.

It also doesn’t have any idea what to do with most of the characters. Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver, who was so much fun in previous X-movies, has maybe half a dozen lines of dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique gets killed off early in the movie, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted her character to be killed off so she wouldn’t have to make any more X-movies. That’s pure speculation on my part, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

And here’s something that bugs me: the movie takes place in 1992. Characters like Professor Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast were in X-Men: First Class, which took place in the 1960’s. They would now have to be in their fifties at least, yet none of them look like they’ve aged a single day. Heck, X-Men: Days of Future Past took place largely in the 1970’s, and Quicksilver, who was in that movie, looks exactly the same. He should be in his mid-30’s. He looks like he’s about eighteen. The movie didn’t even try to make any of its characters look older. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill by complaining so much about this, but this lack of respect for basic continuity drives me nuts.

Dark Phoenix is a competently-made and well-acted movie. The climactic train battle was quite a bit of fun and gave all the X-Men creative ways to use their powers. Sophie Turner is also quite good as Jean, and does very good work here. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are actors that I don’t think are capable of giving bad performances, even if Fassbender is underused.

I like the X-Men film series overall, even though it’s had it’s share of ups and downs. Dark Phoenix, sadly, is one of the downs. I prefer to think of 2017’s Logan as the conclusion to the X-Men series, since that movie had the emotional heft and strong sense of closure that Dark Phoenix sorely lacks. This was the directorial debut of longtime X-Men movie producer/writer Simon Kinberg, and his film has its moments but ends up being a disappointment.

Disney now owns the X-Men film rights, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll be seeing different versions of our favorite mutants in future MCU movies. Some of the henchmen in Dark Phoenix wear armbands that say MCU on them, which I’m pretty sure stands for Mutant Containment Unit, but I couldn’t help but think of Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s nothing more than a coincidence, but it’s one that I found amusing.

The next movie I’m excited about is Spider-Man: Far From Home, but that doesn’t come out until July 2nd, so I’ll have to think of something else to write about until then. Maybe I’ll bring back the Roger Moore Bond movies, or ooooooh! Maybe I’ll write about Netflix’s Punisher series, starring the always-excellent Jon Bernthal. Exciting possibilities!

Capsule Reviews: John Wick 3, Aladdin, Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I’ve seen some fun movies over the last couple weeks and haven’t had time to write about them until now, so let’s talk about ‘em. First up is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. I’m a big fan of the John Wick series, and my expectations going into the third movie were pretty high.

Fortunately, director Chad Stahelski and star Keanu Reeves didn’t let me down. John Wick 3 is every bit as kinetic and badass as the previous films in the series. The John Wick movies continue to be an absolute dream come true for action junkies such as myself, and the action sequences in this movie are nothing less than poetry in motion.

Brutally violent poetry, but hey.

Image: Lionsgate

The third movie does have some pacing issues and is maybe a bit overlong, and the plot can be kinda confusing. I’m still not sure who that guy John meets in the desert was supposed to be. But it doesn’t matter, because the movie delivers where it counts: ACTION. Keanu Reeves is such a badass that you’d never guess he’s 54 years old. The dude puts actors half his age to absolute shame.

I could go into more detail about the extent of this movie’s awesomeness, but it’s been a few weeks since I saw it so I don’t think I could really do it justice. It has some flaws but they are more than overcome by the ferocious intensity of its action. Keanu is one of our best action stars and seems like a genuinely cool guy in real life. How much ass does this movie kick? All of it.

Next up is Aladdin. The original Aladdin is one of my favorite classic Disney movies, and it’s one of the first movies that I clearly remember seeing in a theater (I must have been around five), so it holds a very special place in my heart. I was cautiously optimistic about the new live-action version of the movie, since I genuinely love Aladdin but the new movie was directed by Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker that I have a…complicated relationship with. The movie got mixed reviews and plenty of people didn’t seem to like it, so I was prepared for potential disappointment.

Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The new version of Aladdin is an absolute joy and I enjoyed the heck out of it. It delivers everything you want from Aladdin: all the characters, all the songs, the great story, all of it. The production design, sets, special effects and costumes are excellent across the board, the songs are vibrant and catchy, and the movie is, above all, fun.

Image: Disney

Will Smith also deserves a lot of credit for taking over the role of the Genie and making it his own. He did a great job with it, it must have been hard taking over from a performance as iconic as Robin Williams was in the original version, but I was very impressed with Smith’s work in the film. I don’t know what more you could ask for from a live-action version of Aladdin. It has some flaws, sure, but much like John Wick the overall experience is so enjoyable that its flaws are easy to overlook.

Guy Ritchie toned down the aggressive stylization that characterizes much of his work and made a movie that honestly far exceeded my expectations. The critics were very mean to it but don’t listen to them. See the movie and decide for yourself. The movie is “Rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, but I have become increasingly jaded with Rotten Tomatoes ratings and don’t put much stock in them. The popularity of Rotten Tomatoes is something that I think has really hurt the movie industry in a lot of ways, and its ratings hold far too much sway over whether audiences see a movie or not.

This is a discussion for another time, but it boils down to this: if a movie you’re interested in gets a bad Rotten Tomatoes score or whatever, who cares? See the movie for yourself and make up your own mind. Your opinion is every bit as valid as those of so-called “professional critics.” Who needs ‘em?

Speaking of fun movies with mediocre Rotten Tomatoes scores, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is another one. For the last Godzilla movie, which came out in 2014, everyone was like, “there’s not enough Godzilla.” Godzilla appears early and often in the new movie and there’s all the monster-smashing action you could wish for. So what does everyone say? “There’s too much Godzilla.” MAKE UP YOUR DAMN MINDS PEOPLE!!!

I hear people say that the plot of this movie is ridiculous. Of course it is! Have y’all never seen a Godzilla movie before, or any monster movie at all for that matter? They’re all ridiculous, across the board. It’s part of what makes them fun. If you’re complaining about the plausibility of a monster movie, you’re completely missing the point. This is something that should not require explanation.

Image: Warner Bros./Legendary

King of the Monsters was directed by Michael Dougherty, and it’s his first foray into big-budget blockbuster filmmaking. His previous movies included the cult classics Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, and he’s clearly a guy who loves monster movies. His film brings together some of the most classic monsters from the long-running series of Japanese Godzilla films (there are seriously like 30 Godzilla movies). There’s Mothra (a giant moth, obviously), Rodan (basically a humongous pterodactyl), and King Ghidorah, a massive three-headed dragon who is the movie’s main antagonist.

I don’t know if you knew this, but it’s actually been scientifically-proven that nothing on earth is cooler and more badass than a three-headed dragon, except for maybe John Wick. You can’t argue with this, it’s science.

Again, I’m not saying this movie is perfect by any means. The plot is a bit hard to follow and there are a lot of great actors in this movie who get almost nothing to do. Poor Charles Dance, for example, does almost nothing but glower in the background of a few scenes. So yes, the characters in the movie are not very memorable, despite being played by capable actors such as Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (the latter two reprising their roles from the 2014 Godzilla film). But it’s no slight against these very good actors to say that they’re not the real stars of the movie.

The stars of a movie subtitled “King of the Monsters” are the damn monsters, and they are AWESOME. They look great, they sound great, they smash stuff real good. A lot of care and attention clearly went into the design and creation of these mighty beasts, and the action sequences in the movie are thrilling and fun. There were multiple times during the movie where I thought to myself, “now THIS is the stuff I pay to see!” and that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can give. I came for fun monster action, and fun monster action was what I got, so I left the theater happy. Bring on Godzilla Vs. Kong, which is set for release next year.

So there you go, three movies that weren’t perfect but hey, what movie is? Other than Die Hard, anyway. John Wick 3, Aladdin and the new Godzilla film are excellent summer entertainment, critics be damned. If you want to see a movie, go see it. If you pick one of these you’ll have a good time. Next up is X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Elton John biopic Rocketman, which came out this weekend but I haven’t seen yet. Next weekend, hopefully! Go have fun at the movies!