Xena: Warrior Princess 4.5 – A Good Day

Up until the final scenes, our son was really enjoying this one, which is nice, because he certainly didn’t enjoy the previous three. It ends with a long, long meditation on the horrors of war – there’s slow motion and “noooooooooooo” and a quite unsurprising death among the guest stars – and then Xena sings at another funeral. To be fair, I was enjoying this one quite a lot until the slo-mo myself, but the kid’s precise criticism after five minutes of the show turning into a tear-jerker nails it best. “I really don’t like it when it turns into a sad relationship broken drama.”

Anyway, it’s a heck of a good plot and a very, very good production. Caesar and Pompey have brought the Roman civil war to Greece, and while Pompey’s forces are larger, Karl Urban’s Caesar inspires far greater loyalty and morale in his men, plus he’s a much better battlefield tactician. Xena schemes to assure a little mutually-assured destruction so what’s left of their forces will return to Rome and leave these hills and villages alone.

Pulling this off required probably the largest collection of costumed, combat-ready extras we’ve seen in this series, augmented by some of those CGI-enhanced crowd scenes that were a lot harder to spot in the 1990s than they are today. But the brawling and the scope is very, very impressive: much higher budgeted weekly TV series rarely pull off anything this spectacular. To be fair, the effect was slightly spoiled tonight, because afterward, Marie and I watched the first half of Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 epic Kagemusha, which has one of the largest collections of costumed, combat-ready extras I’ve seen in anything, period. But Xena nevertheless deserves a lot of praise for what it could accomplish with so much less money, and the fight scenes really are golden.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.16 – When in Rome…

We skipped a few episodes that I’d planned for us to watch. None of us enjoyed some of the earlier installments of Xena and Gabrielle being all angsty and unhappy; reading between the lines at the indispensable Australian Xena Information Page, it seems that the last three episodes, which were very amusing, were welcome detours in the middle of what fans call “the rift arc.” Life’s too short, so I juggled the order of things.

Anyway, this one starts splendidly, with mobs of costumed stuntmen beating each other senseless as Caesar’s troops charge into Gaul looking for a barbarian who’s been a thorn in his side. Karl Urban’s back as Caesar this week, and he really is perfectly insidious and nasty in the role. Xena tries to arrange an exchange for a very important Roman prisoner, and this episode’s all about seeing which of the adversaries is further ahead in anticipating their opponents’ moves. It’s also all about seeing how far Gabrielle’s willing to trust Xena after their recent unpleasantness, and while Caesar and Xena are scheming and planning and setting traps, neither of them could possibly predict what Gabrielle does at the end, making a decision and ensuring that at least one person knows what she’s done and why. Sorry to be vague, but it’s a genuinely terrific ending.

Our son was very pleased with the adventure. It certainly wasn’t as funny as recent installments, but it’s full of the action he’s watching the show to see. I was amused by a little made-for-TV simplicity – this plan only works because the citizens accused of public drunkenness are thrown in the same prison as the fellows on death row ready for the coliseum – but the Xena team really did a fine job pulling this off as well as anybody at the time could on a television budget. Most importantly, Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor are believable and so watchable as two friends learning to trust and love each other again. I think we did the right thing skipping the darker stories before this.

Xena: Warrior Princess 3.4 – The Deliverer

It would be overstating things somewhat to call this great television, but it has several moments. I picked this one because it’s got both Ares and Julius Caesar in it – this is Karl Urban’s second turn as his other recurring character in the show – and then got a little discouraged because it turned into another story of Gabrielle about to get her heart broken by another cute boy, this one a follower of one of those new-fangled “one God” sorts, and ended up very impressed by the number of tricks it pulls. There are some downright delicious twists in this one, not the least of which is Gabrielle straight up killing somebody to defend the cute boy.

Ares pulls Xena aside for another one of his parlays, which is a bit selfish of him because Xena’s supposed to be working with Boadicea to march against every one of Caesar’s legions in Britain. Xena reads between the lines and figures Ares and the rest of the Olympians are really frightened of the new “one God,” because he’s going to do to them what they did to the Titans. Marie’s about tired of Ares and wishes this show would consign him to history as well. I’m afraid we’re nowhere near done with him yet.

But speaking of recurring characters, the really strange thing is that Boadicea doesn’t become one. The actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand looks totally like she’s being set up as a player in a multi-part arc, but Boadicea’s rout of Caesar’s forces takes place offscreen while Xena and Gabrielle have to deal with other matters. It’s weird storytelling, but I appreciate the show pulling the rug out from under me.

Xena: Warrior Princess 2.22 – A Comedy of Eros

Karl Urban makes a brief return as Cupid in the very silly second season finale. Cupid thinks that his son is asleep, but he’s just playing possum while Mom and Dad are tied up. The little sprog gets a quiver of arrows and a bow and goes out to wreak havoc. Soon, Xena is head over heels for her old enemy Draco (from episode one), Gabrielle is all aswoon over Joxer, and Draco is in love with Gabrielle. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Our son certainly laughed his fool head off, though I think several of the gags were a little too mysterious for him. Unfortunately, I missed out on one explanation. I told him what the phrase “comedy of errors” means before we started, but didn’t explain what “Eros” meant, so not even the pun made sense. It actually only just struck me that Cupid was the Roman name for Eros. That seems a little odd; the other gods and demigods in this show have the Greek names. But we all enjoyed the tomfoolery and the silliness. I was going to screencap Xena giving herself a cold bath and an even colder scowl to quit thinking about Draco, but I adored her calling him “sweetie” and “cute” and clamping her hands over her mouth, embarrassed that she’s using those words.

Poor Joxer steals the show right at the end. The whammy undone, everybody’s getting ready to call it a night and Gabrielle is dismissive and ridiculous about the mad idea that she’d be in love with Joxer, who’s been doing the right thing and trying to keep her at arm’s length all day. Even if Joxer didn’t genuinely adore her, he still wants his friends to respect him. Xena shows him some silent support after Gabrielle cluelessly stomped his heart flat, and the bawdy, silly hour ends on a curiously sad note. Poor shmuck.

That’s all for our look at Xena‘s second season, but we’ll look at a selection of third season episodes in the fall. Stay tuned!

Xena: Warrior Princess 2.16 – For Him the Bell Tolls

Well, I’ve got Joxer the Mighty’s incredibly catchy theme song, “Joxer the Mighty,” stuck in my head now. Great.

“For Him the Bell Tolls” is another episode that they filmed while Lucy Lawless was recovering from her injury in America. She’s just in the two scenes that top and tail the story while Gabrielle and Joxer have an adventure of their own. The story introduces a second recurring character for Karl Urban: the god Cupid. It also marks the first appearance in Xena of Alexandra Tydings as Cupid’s mom, Aphrodite. She’d been introduced the previous year on Hercules, and now the two of them are having a family feud over Cupid’s latest targets: a royal Romeo and Juliet from neighboring kingdoms who have decided to elope. This conflicts with some of Aphrodite’s own real estate and antiquity plans, so she puts the whammy on Joxer to drive a wedge between Romeo and Juliet. Wacky hijinks and a pretty good swordfight follow.

Certainly not a great episode, this one’s still entertaining with lots of slow burns and comedy moments and we all enjoyed it both for the laughs and the good character moment for Joxer, who comes to the sad realization at the end that he isn’t being the hero at all, Gabrielle is. He also composes a theme tune for himself that rhymes “sidekick” with “little stick,” and I don’t think poor Gabrielle really appreciated being immortalized in this particular song.

Xena: Warrior Princess 2.12 – Destiny

Another adventure teevee trope this season: the flashback episode. This time, Xena wraps up an incredibly impressive fight against a gang of stuntmen only to get smashed into a tree by a remarkably unlikely log trap that shatters most of her bones and internal organs. So while Gabrielle spends a few days dragging her to the only healer in the ancient world who can do anything about wounds this grievous, Xena remembers an incident from ten winters previously. Then, Not-Too-Ambitious Xena was a pirate, and she had a little tryst with Julius Caesar that didn’t end well for anybody except the fellow on his way to conquer the known world. Caesar is played by Karl Urban, who had a different part in an episode last season. Since he didn’t get upstaged by a waterfall this time, here’s what Urban looked like in 1997. Caesar appears in seven more episodes of Xena and one Hercules. I hope that they’re not all flashbacks and Xena gets a few present-day rematches with him.

It turns out that Gabrielle was a little late dragging Xena to the healer, and she dies on the acupuncture table. “Destiny” is the first part of what appears to be an arc of three episodes, the others set in the present as Xena’s spirit tries to return to her body. Our son has been growling ever more loudly about cliffhangers and multi-part stories, and wasn’t pleased that they didn’t resolve this one. I told him I’d make it up to him by watching the next Doctor Who two-parter the same evening. That made him about 2% less cranky.

Xena: Warrior Princess 1.19 – Altared States

Ehh… it starts well, at least. I absolutely love swimming with a waterfall, with or without two attractive actresses having a bath, so I was really enjoying the sights of the Hunua Falls, which the Loyal to Xena site tells me is about 15-20 miles southeast of Auckland. Then Xena beats the daylights out of six dudes while armed with only some fish on a rope. Then Baby Karl Urban shows up. Seriously, he was about 23 when this was filmed and he looks about ready for his learner’s permit. Urban will show up in other episodes as different characters. (Oh, and that’s not him in the picture above, but the director never framed Urban with the waterfall behind him. I like to choose screencaps with the guest star, but, sorry, Karl, waterfalls win out.)

Sadly, the rest of the episode didn’t live up to the opening. Gabrielle gets drunk off some drugged nutbread, which is hilarious, but the story is a take on the parable of Abraham and Isaac, which as far as I’m concerned was only ever good for inspiring the first verse of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Our son didn’t enjoy it at all, in part because this was another Bible story we never bothered to tell him, but mainly because the sight of families being horrible to each other just eats him from the inside. This one didn’t really appeal to any of us, but it does make me hungry to go swim at Foster Falls again this summer.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Earlier today, Daniel got his second trip to a movie theater to see the new Pete’s Dragon, which you can very easily believe is a sequel to the original. Who knows how long dragons live, anyway? Elliot was probably fluttering around North America for the last couple of hundred years helping out kids in need. It’s just chance that two of them were named Pete.

Live action Disney films are a good deal leaner and meaner these days than in the heyday that we’ve been watching for the blog. This is a good half an hour shorter than the original. There’s an economy of storytelling here, with ample space for the spectacle, but no time wasted on musical numbers or forced humor that doesn’t go anywhere. There are certainly a few amusing moments in the film, but they all serve the plot in obvious ways and do not linger. I was very, very impressed with the script, especially how the two antagonistic brothers, played by Karl Urban and Wes Bentley, are mostly left to the actors’ body language to define.

While the last twenty years of deeply dopey shows and TV movies on the Disney Channel might lead you to suspect the studio forgot how to cast anything, the studio bosses clearly know what they’re doing on their big features. Pete and his new friend Natalie are played by terrific young actors named Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence. Bentley and Urban are both very good, but the heart of the movie is shared by Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, and Redford just makes every single thing look effortless, doesn’t he? They’re both wonderful and believable.

Elliot sounds – and looks, of course – more like an animal than he did in the original, but he still grumbles and sneezes and makes oddball noises and looks at cows with bemusement, so the old fellow’s just as charming as ever. His human foes have slightly greater firepower than they did when we last met, and I was very concerned with how my son would react to a bigger threat to Elliot than Shelley Winters and some hillbillies.

He did really well, and was silent for a good 99% of the movie, which was better than some of the rest of the audience. I think that it’s probably a movie that will frighten grownups more than it will children. It opens with the explanation of why Pete has spent six years living in the Pacific Northwest without any human company, and I was worried about that as well. But that didn’t faze him, and nor did the nighttime scenes of Elliot defending his territory, nor the scenes of Elliot’s capture. (Tranquilizers are used rather than bullets.)

In fact, I only noticed him getting worried just once, and that was during the climax, when a truly exciting scene that had him smiling and hopping in his seat suddenly turned a little dark, and Howard and Bentley’s characters are shown to have been endangered by Elliot. He recovered well, and pronounced the film “pretty cool.” We had a great time.