Sun Ra - Column for 2/25

The Count of the Damned Rollerball

Note: This movie discusses three recent films. (Which films, you should be able to discern from the title.) Plot points are avoided, but if you don't want to read general impressions of these films, come back to this column later.

We see, on average, a movie a weekend. Sometimes it's Friday night, sometimes on Saturday, every now and then on Sunday - and sometimes two a weekend and sometimes none. But one per weekend is a pretty accurate average. This corresponds fairly well to the tendency of local movie theaters, firmly in the iron grip of the major studios, to release one decent movie per week. This is more of a 'forced' average, since the studios tend to release movies in clumps, three good films one week and only crap-ola for the next two, but since movies generally run for a while, our movie-going habits and their movie-releasing habits mesh fairly well together.

The most recent three films we watched were The Count of Monte Cristo, Rollerball, and Queen of the Damned. Sadly, there is no obvious connecting thread running through these films (except that Monte Cristo was really, really good - and Rollerball was, charitably, not), but by God I have my soapbox, so I'm going to use it. Strap in, Ebert.

The Count of Monte Cristo was fantastic. Rather unfortunately, it's been preceeded in time by some other fantastic films (Black Hawk Down and The Fellowship of the Ring), and it's rather unimpressive to say "The best film I've seen in weeks! No no - it's really good - I mean, before that, it's been years since a film this good, it's just that several really good ones came out at once, oh, you know...." At any rate, it was top-drawer. (Which, I guess, means it is either socks or underwear, depending on your drawers.)

The acting was stellar, the sets were lavish and spectacular without being at all out of place, the costumes were - well, I thought they were great, but K. (whose knowledge of period clothing is to mine what Iguazu falls is to a Slip-n-slide) said the dresses were about twenty years off. Ah well. We both agreed it was a great looking film.

Story-wise, it was well told and well paced, although it did rush a little towards the end. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the original story is some 800 pages long. The villian (well, one of them) suffers from an Iago-like credulity of motive, although they try to paper this over, and Guy Pearce does a fine job. And the sword fighting! Oh - the sword fighting! It was so good to see realistic-looking sword fighting! Especially after seeing The Brotherhood of the Wolf, which proved that even a long, hokey Hong Kong action film can be an arthouse flick if it is made in France. It was, in essence, a believable movie, if only while under its spell. Rush out and see it before it's gone.

Which brings us to Rollerball. Luckily, I knew Rollerball was going to plumb the depths of suckiness. Living in L.A. for two years has truly given me a new perspective on the film business, because everyone in L.A. cares about the film business. In L.A., everyone stays for the credits. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who worked on this film or that other film. And as such, you really get a feel for the internal machinations involved in making a film - in making this film or that film - or in making Rollerball.

Summer before last, I was really hoping Rollerball would be good. I mean, even the original wasn't very good, but it had that nihilistic future utopia-on-ultraviolence feel. Maybe they could recapture that, but actually have plot and character development!

Well, the following year, as the film collapsed into release date pushbacks and re-edits, those hopes evaporated like sweat from LL Cool J's brow. Rollerball, slated for an August 2001 release, finally slunk into theaters in February 2002.

It was as bad as I expected. Dumb characters, poor cinematography, silly script - even the Roller Arena action scenes were neither fun nor exciting. Admittedly, the overarcing story premise was quite clever, and a good way to 'update' the classic. The 'announcer' in the game, played by Paul Heyman (a veteran WWF announcer) was fun. And Jean Reno and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos both gave solid performaces, even as the ship slipped under the waves.

So skip that one. I'm very confident in my recommendations to you, dear reader, about those two films. Do do do go see Monte Cristo, and miss miss miss Rollerball. But as far as Queen of the Damned... well, I can't give an objective judgement. I loved it. I want to go see it again. But then, it's a vampire film. I was going to love it no matter how bad it was. And it was actually rather good.

Queen of the Damned is far from perfect. For one thing, it suffers from Harry Potter-itis. The movie packs in two books' (both Queen of the Damned and The Vampire Lestat, which preceeds it) worth of material, and it shows. There are many characters who get no more than a few minutes of screen time, many more missing entirely, and only a devotee of the books would know what everyone's role in this little drama is. I both enjoyed and was disappointed by Fellowship of the Ring, because a movie simply cannot encompass a large book. In this film, I was on the other side, not having read the books, and left wondering how many references I was simply missing. By and large, they were handled well - I was never confused as to what was going on. But there were characters that obviously had more going on than simply appearing in Lestat's life at certain times.

It's also hokey. At least, some of the time. I had the advantage of seeing this film on opening weekend, in a full theater, so the audience gave me feedback on what was cool and what was amusing. The film got off to a fairly rocky start, with several moments where intensity was desired and the audience started snickering. A large part of that can be attributed to the use of 'voice-over', which I have never seen set a mood effectively. Ever. Having a character talk to the audience, even when you need to tell us backstory, just doesn't work. Hollywood, take note.

On the other hand, however, when the movie hit its stride, it was awesome. The vampires looked like vampires. No 1930s era two long canines - their teeth were fantastic, animalistic and alien without any lisping. They did suffer from excessive airbrushing at times (close-up on Stuart Townsend so close you can see his eyelashes, but his cheeks and nose are a smeary blur so you don't think vampires have pores...), but were fantastic in action. The scene of Akasha searching for Lestat in the Admiral's Arms (a vampire hangout, once a 1600s London pub and now apparently a rubber fetish club) was worth the price of admission alone.

Technically, it was high-calibre. The sets were fantastic, spanning a wide range of styles and emotional contexts. The special effects were effective and at the same time unobtrusive, believable. (No, you may not believe in vampires, but if you grant the hypothesis that there are vampires, then they sure could look like that. That sort of 'believable'.) And the acting peaked at superb.

Aaliyah was a fantastic Akasha. She just felt ancient and inhuman, from the way she moved to the way she talked. Vincent Perez was fantastic as Marius, and Townsend, the workhorse of the film, was largely excellent. His performance degraded when he occasionally lapsed into self-consciousness, but mostly he was an arrogant, alien, yet still somehow able to be related to master protagonist.

It was, for me, really, really good. I admit, I was going to like it anyways. I've seen every vampire movie from Subspecies to Lust for a Vampire to Dracula versus Billy the Kid. So I'll be the first to say that my judgement is hardly unbiased. But I think, honestly, that it was a pretty good film. Not great - but the audience certainly felt they got their money's worth. It had moments of unintended silliness. But it had scenes of glittering power and brilliance.

And vampires. In my head, I know The Count of Monte Cristo was better. But my heart knows what I want to see again.

No, not Rollerball.

- Sun Ra

Columns by Sun Ra