A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 214 – Over the Hedge

Over the Hedge – September 30th, 2010

We watched today’s movie early. Like, as soon as we woke up. Early. This is because today is a busy day. A friend of mine is in town for a single day and we’re meeting for lunch in Boston, and then back home and then out to Boston again for the Ig Nobel Awards this evening. We didn’t want to count on being able to fit a movie in between lunch and the Igs so we grabbed something short to put in this morning and watched it as fast as we could. Which, given that we can’t watch it on fast-forward means it took a little under 90 minutes. That’s how movies work.

I’m not sure what prompted Andy to buy this movie in particular. I mean, it’s not that I object to it (we’ll get to things I object to and I will make myself very clear), it’s just that it’s not a Pixar movie. It’s Dreamworks. And while we do own a fair number of Dreamworks Animation movies, Pixar’s the studio that gets the release = buy Pavlovian response in our household. So I’m not sure what it was specifically that made him pick this one out of the list. Was it the 3D animation? Was it the cast? Was it something he heard from someone at work? Was it that it was on sale during a store closing and he figured why not? I don’t know. I’ll ask when I’m done writing.

First, let’s talk about some issues I’ve got. So. This is a movie about a bunch of forest animals who, upon waking up after a winter’s hibernation, find that their little nook of forest has been hemmed in by a hedge and surrounded by suburbia. At a loss for what to do for food, they end up listening to a con-man raccoon. Now, I prefer to think of the character of RJ as a modern trickster in this tale. Tricksters have a long history of animal representation and raccoons seem tailor made for the role. But that’s not a problem. That’s a good thing. My problem is in how very much of a sledgehammer the movie is on issues of modern human consumerism. Of course there’s the junk food RJ tricks the animals into stealing for him. That’s a major part of the plot. But the entire suburban landscape is built specifically to make the point that we’re all filthy piggish primates. I get it. I do. The Homeowner’s Association president griping at someone that their lawn is a half inch too high, the cracks about SUVs holding only one person, the lawn gnomes. I get it, really. But I guess that’s the movie’s schtick, so that’s how it was going to be.

My other issue is Stella. Or rather, how Stella is dealt with by the movie. There are several characters in the film. There’s RJ, the trickster raccoon, who cons Verne (turtle), Hammy (squirrel), Ozzie and Heather (opossums), and Lou and Penny and their three kids (porcupines), and Stella. She is a skunk, and sure that makes sense, given the whole backyard vermin thing the movie has going on. But she’s a shy skunk who hides behind a shock of hair and is totally self-defeating. Why not make her confident? There are two female animals in the main cast, and the porcupine kids are far more visible than either of the parents. Stella’s really it, and then they do this whole Miss Congeniality meets Warner Brothers makeover on her and suddenly she’s not shy anymore! I will, however, give the movie credit for giving Wanda Sykes as Stella some great moments after the makeover, turning it a little on its side. But I still think it could have been handled better. The trouble is, I wouldn’t expect it to be handled better. It would be nice, but it’s predictable that it’s not.

Predictability is really the big issue. There’s not a whole lot unexpected in this movie. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe someone who hasn’t seen the Futurama episode “Three Hundred Big Boys” would have been caught by surprise by the ending. Maybe the anti-consumerism stuff wouldn’t be as much of an anvil to a kid? I’m not sure. It’s certainly fun, even if it is easy to figure out just what’s going to go down. The point of the movie doesn’t seem to have ever been to bring something totally new and never seen before to the theater. It’s not trying to be revolutionary. It’s a movie about animals kids will recognize doing funny things and looking at our world from their perspective. It’s the sort of trickster tale I like best, where the trickster plays his jokes and gets a laugh, but then has to deal with some consequences. It’s slapstick and silly and it takes good advantage of having a great voice cast with people like Allison Janey, Gary Shandling, Bruce Willis and the fantastic William Shatner (he plays one of the opossums and gets to very dramatically fake his own death a lot).

I really did enjoy the movie. I wish it hadn’t tried to bludgeon me with a message and done something more original with Stella, but beyond the message and the makeup, it’s a silly movie with a lot of good solid jokes. There are puns, verbal jokes, referential humor and plenty of physical laughs. The animation is pretty and the facial expressions on the animals are great, especially Hammy the squirrel. I did enjoy Tiger, the cat who lives in the house the animals infiltrate, and not just because my family did once own a cat similar to him, who was convinced he was a fearsome outdoor beast until he’d get outside and OMG MUD. I liked the porcupine kids and I’ve always loved Allison Janey. Message aside, it’s a fluff piece, but fun nonetheless.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Over the Hedge

September 30, 2010

Over the Hedge

In the spirit of Ice Age comes this hyper-kinetic craziness. It’s a computer animated film with a concentration on Warner Brother’s style slapstick humor. (Indeed there’s a bit near the end that felt to me like a direct Pepe LePew reference.) I had watched the beginning of this movie during my lunch breaks at work one time and found it fun, so I picked it up when we had it on sale one day but never got around to watching the rest.

The plot in some ways reminds me of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. R.J. is a raccoon with a golf bag full of useful gadgets stolen from the human world. In desperation and hunger one day he steals some food from a bear he knows. Actually, he steals all of it, and the red wagon and blue cooler as well. Vincent is somewhat perturbed and swears that unless R.J. can recover all of the stolen supplies before the next full moon he will wreak bloody vengeance.

To achieve this feat R.J. cons an innocent group of woodland creatures that he comes upon. These are an odd collection of beasts who all live together in a log in the forest, and who wake up after a winter’s hibernation to find that their idyllic patch of woods has become surrounded by endless tracts of suburban houses. They are a timid turtle, a hyper-kinetic squirrel, a sassy skunk, a pair of possums, a pair of porcupines (with mid-western accents) and their brood. None of them have any experience with humans or suburbia, and so they are easily led by the world-weary and canny R.J., who acts as a combination guide and mentor in the peculiar ways of human beings.

What attracted me to the movie is the great cast they have playing all the characters. As with yesterday’s movie we have Garry Shandling stealing every scene – this time as Verne the turtle. Bruce Willice is the center of the movie as the resourceful R.J. with his magic bag of tricks. Steve Carrell is the big crowd pleaser as Hammy the squirrel. And William Shatner is great fun as the prone-to-ridiculous-overacting possum Ozzie. I feel slightly bad, however, for Wanda Sykes as Stella, as she plays a fairly stereotypical sassy black woman. It’s not her fault, it’s just lazy writing and she got typecast into the role. Somewhat puzzling is the casting of Averil Lavigne as Ozzie’s daughter Heather. Her character seems to be lampooning Averil’s public image – full of vapid “yeah whatever” utterances that I think are intended to be mocking.

The whole thing is very much played for laughs. It’s more cartoonish than most animated movies these days tend to be. As I said before it’s kind of a throwback to the days of Warner Brothers and Tex Avery. Things like R.J.’s golf bag (which reminds me of Secret Squirrel’s jacket – it always has just the right tool for the job instantly at hand.) Things like the common cartoon device of the turtle with the removable shell. Things like every skunk joke they make at Stella’s expense. They might as well have given the balding exterminator at the end of the movie an Elmer Fudd accent and had done with it.

You feel at times that the movie has something more to say. Something about rampant consumerism and human wastefulness, for example. (And let me go on record as saying how pleased I was that the film makers chose to create all their own brands rather than inserting product placement from our real world. It was jarring in Antz and it would have been absolutely omnipresent and unbearable in this movie.) There’s also a message about family and sticking together. (If this had been a Pixar movie, for example, you can bet we’d know a lot more about what happened to R.J.’s family and why he is so alone at the start of this movie. There are references to it, and I think it’s supposed to drive his character, but it’s kind of sidelined by all the comedy and I’m not sure if we’re actually intended to take what he says about his family seriously.)

Mostly, though, it’s about the laughs. There might be a tender moment here and there, but then there’s a chase scene or Hammy running around being manic or a joke about Ozzy over-acting and we forget the sentimentality in favor of more silliness. It has a fun climactic scene that steals its resolution from one of our favorite Futurama episodes. It has a somewhat distracting grunge inspired soundtrack of custom songs during the montage scenes. It has a lot of frenetic activity and very little actual plot or resolution.

I’d say overall it is a fun but inconsequential movie. I enjoyed it well enough without every really caring about it. Mostly I watched it for Garry Shandling and William Shatner, and let the rest just kind of flow around me.

September 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 213 – Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 – September 29th, 2010

As I might have mentioned, we don’t always have a movie planned ahead of time. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we just play it by ear. Sometimes what we watch is determined by the events of our days, or by a holiday we find out about midday, or sometimes because something arrives in the mail and we have to watch it right now. Which is what happened today. We saw this in the theater originally and I’ve been looking forward to owning it since. It’s not quite the same bullseye hit that the first was, but personally I think it’s a worthy sequel.

As is the case with any hit, like Batman Begins and the like, the first Iron Man movie really packed quite a lot into a single movie, playing everything just so. Everything comes together to make something amazingly fun in movies like that. And then, both because it’s a financial hit and because the source material is serialized, a sequel is all but guaranteed. The thing is, the success of the sequel isn’t guaranteed at all. Look at Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. I mean, I enjoy the sequel, but it’s nowhere close to the first. Same for the Bill & Ted movies. Sure, neither of those examples are comic book based, but you get my drift. Trying to capitalize on the success of a hit only works if you can maintain the right mood while upping the stakes just enough that it doesn’t feel like a letdown. If you picked a badass villain for the first movie, then you need to find someone better or vastly different for the second. I think the new Batman movies are an excellent example. The villains in the first movie aren’t the iconic ones everyone, even non-comic fans, know. The second movie played the Joker. Smart move.

The thing with Iron Man is that while he’s certainly well known, I wouldn’t put his villains on the same level as Magneto or Lex Luthor (yes, I am mixing my Marvel and DC because I’m making a point about widespread public knowledge). So it comes down to making the villains brought in believable and dangerous. There’s some wiggle room here. Ivan Vanko is our main villain in this movie. He’s the son of a man who worked with Tony Stark’s father on the development of the arc reactor and who was then deported back to the Soviet Union. Vanko constructs his own reactor and reactor-powered weapons in order to take revenge on Stark. As in the first movie, there’s a secondary villain, the smarmy Justin Hammer, a blustery defense contractor who desperately wants to steal Stark’s spotlight. Where the Ten Rings villains provided the impetus and materials for Tony to build the original suit and subsequently provided it to the real villain, Hammer provides Vanko the materials to build his weapons and gives him one of Tony’s earlier suits when it falls into his hands. There are little echos like that, but twisted a little off kilter and I think it serves the movie well. Instead of the threat to Tony being someone in his circle aided by outside forces, the threat is an outside force aided by someone in Tony’s home country. It gives the movie a wider scope while still keeping it ‘personal’ to Tony Stark himself, what with Tony having taken on the security of the United States as his personal mission.

So okay, Vanko and Hammer end up working together, and might I say that both Mickey Rourke as Vanko and Sam Rockwell as Hammer are phenomenal. Rourke totally throws himself into the character of Vanko, a brilliant man who has nothing to lose and the willingness to use whatever is given to him in order to carry out his plans. Rockwell is his usual amazing character actor self, doing smarmy just a few notches down from Zaphod Beeblebrox. With enemies like that, one would think that would be all the movie needs. Except no, it doesn’t. It needs some more for Tony. Now, personally I think it gets a little messy here, working in some personal growth for Tony with a plotline about his father leaving him a sort of map to making a new element that will change the world, and it meaning that Tony’s father really loved him even if he never said it, and Tony needing to grow up a little. That’s great. I get it. I get that in the first movie Tony went from being this totally vapid playboy who happened to also be a scary engineering genius, to someone who had a purpose and a goal and a mission. And I get that they wanted to continue it.

But it doesn’t really fit quite right. In the end it feels like it was all an excuse to get Tony all buff and Building Things (not that I mind, that is one awesome sexy scene of totally fake science) and to get Nick Fury back on screen in something other than a post-credits teaser. It doesn’t feel essential except as a means to an end, not as a true part of Tony’s emotional development. What was great about how it was all done in the first one was that the building of the suit and its development, Tony becoming Iron Man, was the emotional growth. It fit so perfectly because the suit was the point both for the character and the action. And that’s not the case here. Yes, the new element Tony makes in his shop (science does not work that way!) is an essential plot point and there’s this whole thing with palladium poisoning and Tony realizing his own mortality, but the movie kind of could have happened without it. We just wouldn’t have gotten the Tony Stark Has A Purpose construction montage.

There are some fantastic bits to the movie, don’t get me wrong. I love it. I even love Scarlett Johansson’s character, who plays a bit of a foil for Pepper and for Tony and ends up kicking a phenomenal amount of ass and dishing out put-downs in Latin. Essential to the plot? No. Fun? Yes. I’m also pleased that Don Cheadle really stepped up to the plate as Rhodes, because I loved Terrence Howard in the role in the first movie and I was nervous. I like Don Cheadle, but I hadn’t seen him in this sort of role before and I didn’t know what to expect. He delivered, and that’s awesome because he really does have an essential part in the plot and a much expanded role on screen. I love the final action sequence, even the expected joke with the “Ex-Wife” and all. I love every scene Pepper is in, being both flustered by Tony (few aren’t, so I excuse that) and utterly capable and efficient and unflappable in a crisis. I love the banter and I love Tony in general and I love Captain America’s shield in the shop. I love Agent Coulson and Jarvis and Nick Fucking Fury. The movie is absolutely full of things I love.

It gets sloppy in places. It tried to do a little too much here and there. The focus could have been pulled a little tighter. Tony’s relationship with his father could have been worked in a little more elegantly. But for all that, it’s still one hell of a movie. It’s fun. It’s action. It’s amusing and fast and has great performances from the entire cast. Of course the action’s great, with the briefcase Iron Man suit and the showdown in the garden and Tony and Rhodes fighting in Tony’s house. But then there are little moments, like Hammer ordering his aide to try and put a robot head on like a helmet? Tony hacking into screens showing evidence during a hearing (and using a text-based terminal with an ASCII “WELCOME TONY”)? The look on Rhodes’ face while Hammer gives his spiel? Agent Coulson’s threat to Tony? All fantastic. So yeah, sloppy. But when there’s so much fun, it’s hard to care much.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Iron Man 2

September 29, 2010

Iron Man 2

We watched this movie in the theaters with our good friend A. It was only after we had watched the whole movie that she revealed that she had never seen the first movie. She thought she was coming along to watch a simple summer action movie full of explosions and fun. I have trouble imagining just what she must have thought watching this movie. The first Iron Man is an origin story, concentrating on the creation of Iron Man and Tony Stark’s redemption from being an irresponsible but brilliant cad to being a super hero with a conscience. It’s a fairly straight forward movie with a pretty simple arc. This movie, on the other hand, is a sequel to a successful action film, and so it has to somehow juggle being bigger and more explosive than the first film with providing something new for fans. Without losing the charm of the first one.

It’s a difficult challenge to take on, and for the most part it works, but at times it has a kind of thrown together feel to it. The problem is that in an attempt to ratchet the whole experience up a little the film makers have tried to mix together too many plots. Some of them are compelling, and some of them are less so, and the resolution of at least one of them is disappointingly deus-ex-machina and doesn’t feel to me like it fits with the world of the film.

Let’s try to identify the main plots: There’s the one about how Tony is literally killing himself by being Iron Man. The palladium that he uses to fuel his portable arc reactor is poisoning his body at a frightening rate and he only has days to live. Then there’s the super-villain of the movie, Ivan Vanko, who is a tortured soul who believes that Tony and his father are responsible for Ivan’s father dying alone and without acclaim in Russia even though he was partially responsible for the creation of the arc reactor technology. Then there’s the plot about Tony’s relationship with his brilliant father (or as I think of it the Venture Brothers plot.) Then there’s the plot about how the US government wants to have the Iron Man suit technology for itself led by Senator Stern and military industrialist (and Tony Stark wannabe) Justin Hammer. Then there’s the plot about SHIELD wanting Tony for some end of their own. Throw all this together in a blender with some romantic subplots as well and you eventually get Iron Man 2. I suppose it’s impressive that the finished product works as well as it does.

That it works at all is almost entirely due to the acting and directing talent on display. Not that I want to belittle the special effects. There are a ton of great action sequences as, in keeping with the whole “turning it up to eleven” theme Tony and his friend Rhodey have to fight off an entire squadron of mechanised attack drones. But the movie wants to be more than an action film. It wants to have a heart in the way that the first movie does, and that relies on the actors to make it all work.

As with the first movie I get the impression that much of the dialog is improvised. I’m sure they had a script, but it’s just there to provide some sound bytes and present a skeleton for the actors to hang their performances upon. Leading the cast once again is Robert Downey Jr, who plays Tony with a kind of self-absorbed fatalism for much of the movie. Everybody else just has to keep up, and for the most part they do. Gwyneth Paltrow has done this with Robert before of course so she does a great job of working with his patter. Replacing Terrance Howard as Rhodey we have Don Cheadle, which threw me at first but very soon I found myself enjoying his interpretation of the role. I love seeing Sam Rockwell in anything, and he’s marvelous as the smarmy Justin Hammer. Garry Shandling has a very small part as Senator Stern, but he goes for the gusto and manages to get the last line in the movie (if you don’t count the bit after the credits.) Director Jon Favreau has given himself a significantly larger part as Happy Hogan, going from a sort of cameo and nod to the comic books to a major supporting character. Scarlett Johansson plays the uncannily perfect assistant from Stark’s legal department who turns out to be much more than she at first appears to be. Samuel L. Jackson gets to take his portrayal of Nick Fury from being just a crowd pleasing post credit bit to a completely badass muthaf*cker. I look forward to seeing more of him in this role.

And of course there’s Mickey Rourke, fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in The Wrestler, as Ivan. His performance is wonderful to behold, and I somewhat feel that it is wasted. He’s a great and powerful bad guy, but there’s so much else going on in this movie that he doesn’t have the impact that I think he could have had. I mean – look at all the actors I listed in that last paragraph there. Look at all those plots. When you try to take on so much stuff then you can’t really do justice to the bits that deserve more screen time.

Another weak part of the movie is the way it rushes to resolve all its plot threads. I feel short changed because so much needs to be tied up so quickly at the end that there’s no time to linger on any one point. The whole plot of Tony’s mortality, which I felt to be one of the most compelling bits of the movie, is resolved in a very off-hand manner through a montage and some magic tech that WOULD NEVER WORK THAT WAY ANYHOW! Ivan is reduced from a menacing terror to a somewhat rote evil-doer. There’s a whole lot that just isn’t resolved at all, except through so me quick dialog bits. Like the daddy issues for both Ivan and Tony – I thought there were going to be more revelations there but it’s just “Nah, Ivan’s dad was evil after all and let’s get on with the rest of the movie now.”

Still, for all its failings I really enjoyed the movie. Mostly for all the great little bits, the sparkling performances and the memorable one-liners. In most other hands this movie would have been a complete disaster, but Jon and Robert manage to carve something cool and amusing out of it. It manages to be lighthearted and a lot of fun to watch, with some fantastic action and special effects. I just wish that we had shown our friend A. the first Iron Man movie, so that she could see how much greater this could be without all the extraneous baggage of a sequel.

September 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 212 – Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson – September 28th, 2010

I had never heard of Laurie Anderson before I met Andy. This was clearly something that had to be rectified and in short order I’d heard a few of her pieces and fallen in love with her bizarre mix of singing, spoken word and eerie instrumentals. But I was also fairly limited in my options for obtaining music. This is pre-Napster, okay? My family’s internet connection at the time was the super 1337 dial-up AOL where one got an hour a day and then paid through the nose for every minute thereafter. I was not downloading performance art music to my family’s ancient PC. I was borrowing it from friends and buying the one CD the local Strawberries had in stock: Bright Red. And I listened to it over and over and over. I could probably recite Puppet Motel from memory on the spot if asked (alas, no one ever has) and to this day I can’t read any version of the Owl and the Pussycat out loud at work because of Anderson’s rendition in Beautiful Pea Green Boat. But neither of those are in this concert. I’m just illustrating a point, which is that I adore Anderson and find her work fascinating, so I was incredibly thrilled when we got ourselves a copy of Home of the Brave.

You need to understand something about Laurie Anderson, and that’s that she isn’t strictly a musician. She’s a performance artist. And I don’t mean the sort of pretentious performance art they make fun of in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I mean the sort of performance art where she takes brilliant music and combines it with visuals and spoken pieces and dance and melds it all into something where the music isn’t the only point of the show. There are chunks of the show with almost no music at all. And Anderson wants to entertain, but also wants to provoke. And in my opinion she succeeds at both.

There’s a wide variety of pieces in this concert. They vary from fairly normal songs to instrumentals to dances to experimental sounds and often they segue from one to the other before you know what’s happened. A short spoken piece about being annoyed by a bug while you’re trying to write gives way to an instrumental piece where a string instrument is played with a fork and knife (and it sounds amazing, so I won’t criticize it for being a gimmick). Anderson takes a moment to call her keyboard player on the phone while they’re both on stage and the two chat for a bit about nothing in particular until the keyboard player excuses herself, since she’s kind of busy and in the middle of a concert. There’s the Drum Dance, where Anderson plays drum pads in her suit by dancing and tapping them. There’s a folktale and a game show and some sampled William S. Borroughs played on a special electric violin modified to play MIDI files when the bow touches the strings. It’s a little all over the place, but that’s Laurie Anderson.

If I had to name a theme for this concert I think I’d say it’s about communication. It’s not so obvious in every piece, but it keeps coming back. Many of my favorite bits from the concert tie into it, so maybe that colors my perception. Zero and One is a spoken piece at the beginning of the show and features Laurie Anderson in a mask reminiscent of El Santo, her voice electronically modified, lecturing the audience about binary and showing them lots of ones and zeroes. When we got the VHS of this concert we popped it in to make sure it was in good shape and I was shocked and amused to realize how much of Anderson’s performance with the voice modification reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. It’s bizarre. But that’s how things start, with some talk about communication and the representation of language and computers and then some cultural stuff too, going into doing away with the negative and positive meanings for zero and one, respectively. It’s a great way to really get things going after an instrumental introduction.

My other favorites are the aforementioned Drum Dance, which isn’t precisely earth shattering but is a quirky little piece and done very well. Anderson just seems to have so much fun playing with sound and movement. I also love Smoke Rings, which begins with a game show and is frequently referenced in our home. Que es mas macho? Pineapple? Or knife? Smoke Rings was the first Anderson song I ever heard. It was on a mix tape Andy had when I met him and I listened to it endlessly. Late Show is another communication piece, using a quote from William S. Burroughs (who appears in the concert) and the MIDI violin to great effect, repeating the word “listen” over and over. I have a fondness for Sharkey’s Day and have since the first time I saw this concert while I was in college (we had a copy at the video store we worked at). And then near the end we get Sharkey’s Night, which has more of the voice modification. Before that there’s Language is a Virus, which obviously plays into the communication theme, and Difficult Listening Hour (as opposed to easy listening), which just amuses me.

There are plenty of other fantastic parts to the concert, of course. Anderson cavorts around the stage and is obviously having a grand time presenting her vision for everyone watching, but she’d got a great crew to back her up. Her back-up vocalists are fantastic, getting into the whole performance, and the same goes for her keyboard player, who has a wonderful 80s punk hairdo going on. All of the other musicians and performers seem to be totally keyed in on Anderson’s aesthetic and mood. The stage is bathed in blue light and the set pieces are minimal. The scrim in the back of the stage is used a lot, but people move in front of it all the time anyhow. It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, just part of the show to have things always moving and going.

Of course this isn’t a typical concert. It seems low key compared to something like Pulse, or even the small venue TMBG we’ve been to. It’s got more people on stage than Weird Al Yankovic Live! but seems more subdued most of the time. And yet it’s engaging and impressive all the same. Mostly, I think, because Anderson is the type of artist who can fill a stage on her own, and then she goes and fills it with other impressive artists as well, because she can, and because it makes the show that much stranger and that much better.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

September 28, 2010

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

This was another discovery I made in college. I made it a point my freshman year to show up every Friday night in my dorm common room for our weekly movies. I don’t recall who it was that chose what we watched, but it was a very strange collection. We went through a John Waters period at one point, concentrating on his earlier and more edgy films (Female Trouble in particular was stranger than anything I had experienced at the time.) We watched Koyaanisquatsi. We watched the infamous X-rated cut of I Spit on Your Grave. Whomever it was that was making the movie watching decisions (I think it might have been my HR Jay) had a knack for finding edgy stuff that none of us had seen before.

Thank goodness for the internet, without which we would have a hard time gathering movies like this into our collection. This is not even available on DVD, so we had to buy a used copy from a purveyor of hard-to-find cassettes. There is a treasure trove of VHS tapes out there from little independent video stores that went out of business in the nineties. I have this picture in my head of warehouses full of undiscovered treasure, just waiting for me to request them. If only I knew what to ask for.

How does one describe Laurie Anderson to the uninitiated? You could vastly simplify things and refer to her as a performance artist, but that doesn’t begin to encompass what she does. The term “performance artist” conjures up pictures of crazy dissonance and art that is more about what is going on in the performer’s head than what you see on the stage. Laurie Anderson mixes a mesmerizing performance with fun and playful music. You can listen to the music without the visuals and still enjoy it (we own a couple of her CDs for example.)

You could also call her a digital pioneer. She talks about ones and zeros as the building blocks of the digital age at the start of this movie. She had digital supplements to her CDs (CD ROMs and such) before such things were heard of. In this movie she makes extensive use of a midi-based electric violin that was, according to the internet, of her own invention. This movie is full of creative uses of new instrument technologies to find new ways to make music. (A prominent example – she at one point has a sort of electric drum kit she wears as gloves and performs a drum solo by dancing and striking her chest, arms and legs.) In my mind she was performing nerd-rock before any such thing existed.

In the concert featured in this movie Laurie Anderson plays a lot with percussion, with tempo, with pacing. She dances with broad exaggerated poses. She has surrounded herself with an eclectic collection of talented musicians who all seem to be enthusiastically along for the ride. Behind her is a giant projection screen on which a series of slides and animations are projected to complement what’s going on on the stage. The lighting is also part of the show, with her bright white suit.

I love this movie. I love the craziness of it and the off-kilter feel of the whole production. I love Laurie’s sense of humor and general inventiveness. I don’t know if I can really describe the whole production too well, though. It’s too far outside of the realm of what I’ve normally experienced. Which is exactly the appeal.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment

Movie 211 – Akira

Akira – September 27th, 2010

When I was in high school there was a guy in my circle of friends and acquaintances who loved this movie. Adored it. Thought it was one of the best things in the entire world. We did not get along very well and he had somewhat questionable taste in movies at times. So I avoided this. He touted Twister as one of the best movies ever made. What was I supposed to think? And yet this is a classic. He had good taste in this, at least. Still, I’ve never watched it. I’m not sure why I hadn’t even before I met him. I’d seen some anime before high school. Not much, but it wasn’t out of my realm of experience. A couple of channels played the more well known movies and series at odd hours. And I kept odd hours. You’d think I’d have seen it, but I never did.

It’s silly really, that I hadn’t gotten around to it until now. After all, it’s got a lot of things I enjoy. Some cyberpunk elements, post-apocalyptic elements, mysterious government experiment elements. Cool motorcycles. Creepy shriveled kids. Okay, strike that last. I don’t go looking or movies with creepy kids in them, but this movie does indeed have them. It’s also got explosions and rival gangs and a boat load of metaphysical philosophizing. It’s sort of like what you’d get if you mixed Neon Genesis Evangelion with Push and City Limits and/or The Warriors. And then actually had it make a modicum of sense.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to review this movie. There’s a lot going on in it and while I can’t really say it blew my mind or anything, it was a lot to try and put in some sort of coherent order for a review. Because it’s not just a movie where shit blows up. It’s not just about a city that’s slowly imploding from a combination of apathy and greed. It’s not just about rival gangs and turf wars and it’s not just about radicals rioting in the streets. That’s all just the trappings of the world. It’s the set-up. Because the real meat of the movie comes from a plot involving government experiments in ESP that lead to a number of children gaining psychic powers and how humanity isn’t really ready for them. That’s the point. That there’s a path to some form of enlightenment and humans just can’t handle it. And wound in there with that is a specific theme of feeling worthless and desperate and helpless to save yourself.

That’s a lot to put into one movie, you know. So it’s impressive that it all hangs together so well. The lead characters, Tetsuo and Kaneda, are members of a motorcycle gang in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019. Thirty years earlier the original Tokyo was destroyed in a huge explosion. In 2019 the city is a mess with riots in the streets, high unemployment and a corrupt government. There are a few shots of the city that remind me very much of the Pruitt Igoe section of Koyaanisqatsi. The city has that feel of a place where things were horribly mismanaged from the get-go. The way it all starts out, it seems like it’s going to be about the seeds of a revolution. Kaneda meets Kei, a young woman who’s working with an underground militant group, and gets wrapped up in what they’re up to. Tetsuo, on the other hand, encounters a strange figure, a wizened child who can cause explosions. And that’s where it all goes off the rails. There’s a huge secret that’s been kept since the destruction of Tokyo. There was a boy named Akira and his powers – developed thanks to meddling by the military – went out of control. And now three of his fellow test subjects are left in government care. Tetsuo manifests similar powers, but stronger and harder to control. Which is where his relationship with Kaneda figures in.

The big themes of the movie seem to have to do with the nature of power and the dangers of knowing too much. But the relationship between Tetsuo and Kaneda is key to everything that happens once Tetsuo develops his psychic powers. Both boys grew up in a home for abandoned children. Kaneda protected Tetsuo from bullies, defended him, helped him, and always seemed to be the one to save the day. So when Tetsuo finds himself powerful enough that he doesn’t need any help, well, he snaps. One could probably make a case for Tetsuo representing the people of the city, disenfranchised and taken advantage of, no roots, no purpose, feeling like they have no control over their own lives, that someone else is holding the reins. Indeed, the people of the city follow him like he’s a messianic figure. Until the final confrontation where there’s sort of a big explosion only not quite and Tetsuo turns into a giant blob baby. But you know, these things happen.

I really do feel ridiculous for never having put this in before. I sat through all of the Evangelion episodes and never watched this. Sure, this is lacking in the giant mech department, but it’s definitely got a flair all its own. It doesn’t need the mechs. It’s got its own mythology and backstory (I’d love to know more about the other Numbers kids before the ones we meet in the movie) and some absolutely gorgeous animation that holds up well past when it was made. All in all, I’m very glad I finally saw it.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Akira

September 27, 2010

Akira

In my childhood there were limited options for somebody who wanted to watch imported Japanese animation. Long before I had ever heard the word “anime” – back in the late seventies and early eighties – my favorite cartoons all had this strange otherworldly aesthetic to them. Things like Battle of the Planets or Robotech (which puzzled me because when I missed some episodes once it seemed to have a completely different setting and cast… which of course was because the show was mashed together from three different Japanese shows.) I loved Star Blazers and two of the five programs that made up Force Five and the lion version of Voltron was pretty cool (yes, I had the toys.) In 1990, when I was in college, I had only begun to understand Japanese animation and its breadth of power and depth of emotion. Those in the know told me at the time that there were two essential movies that anybody who wanted to understand anime had to see. One was Vampire Hunter D, and the other was this movie. Akira.

It’s been a few years since I last watched this and yet still, more than twenty years after it was made, I am astonished by how little it has aged. The level of the animation, the apocalyptic bent of the plot, the pure incomparable scale of the whole movie, all combine to form a master work the likes of which still has not been seen decades later. I don’t quite know where to begin in my attempt to review it.

I once started to read the manga series that this movie was adapted from. I think I read perhaps three of the six volumes that one of my friends in college had. It’s a complex vast and dense work. Serialized as it was over the course of several years it does tend to meander a bit, but it has some central themes which carry through all the bits I read. Themes of corrupt government, dangerous experiments that have resulted in unstoppable psychic powers and a mysterious apocalyptic event that once destroyed Tokyo and must somehow be prevented from re-occurring at any cost. Most of the characters from the manga appear in the movie in much the same way, but things have been necessarily truncated to fit in the much more restrictive format of a movie.

The movie starts out following a band of biker toughs in Neo-Tokyo. Kaneda, Tetsuo and their band are flotsam on the edge of a society that is falling apart. The only thing they seem to care about are their (extremely cool) high-tech motorbikes and their feud with a rival gang of bikers who dress as clowns. That is until they encounter a runaway shrivelled child with psychic powers who has escaped from a top-secret military facility. Something happens to Tetsuo when he encounters this walking experiment and something inside of him is awakened. He begins to develop psychic powers of his own at a frightening rate.

I can’t possibly hope to encompass the plot even of the movie in just a short review. Most of the characters I remember from the manga are here in some form or another. Manga-ka Katsuhiro Otomo does an admirable job of distilling the most important parts of his own comic as he writes and directs the film version. We still have Kei, the revolutionary soldier girl that Kaneda is obsessed with (though in this version it’s not altogether clear what she eventually sees in him.) We still have the noble Colonel who seems to be the only person with any understanding of just how powerful the psychic forces being unleashed in the movie are. There’s the corrupt politician Nezu who is staging a rebellion against his own government in an attempt to grab power for himself. There are the three wizened children who are part of the military experiments into psychic powers. Lady Miyako, the fanatic religious leader, is here too, although she is never named and she doesn’t really interact with any of the other characters. (Her entire backstory is completely lost though, which is kind of sad.) And although his final reveal is radically different from what I recall from the books Akira is in the movie too of course.

It was Akira, with his godlike powers, who first destroyed Tokyo in a massive psychic detonation that started World War III way back in 1988. Now there are some who believe that Tetsuo’s rapidly advancing powers signal a return of Akira. Some want to wipe Neo Tokyo from the map. Some want to prevent this new apocalypse at any cost. And some have more mysterious and spiritual goals in mind. One thing is sure – a massive confrontation of unstoppable forces is sure to occur.

I simply cannot believe how amazing this movie still is. Even after multiple viewings and after so many years. The sheer spectacle of it is a wonder to behold. The film makers must have employed armies of animators to capture all the amazing action, particularly in the later half of the film. In most hand drawn animation you become used to detailed static backgrounds with the characters, somewhat more crude because they must be drawn hundreds of times over to be animated, pasted on top. During most of the last half hour of this movie though there is so much constant destruction, flying debris, wafting smoke and pulsing, throbbing, animated insane flesh (you have to see it to understand that last) that there are few painted backgrounds and they are mostly obscured almost all the time. Everything on the screen is crumbling, exploding, pulsing or moving. It boggles my mind just how much effort must have gone into making this movie. It would be almost ten years before another movie with animation of this quality would appear (I speak here of Princess Mononoke.) Akira was far ahead of its time, and has not been surpassed by any other hand drawn animated film I have seen yet.

The soundtrack, which is so sparse and alien, is iconic too. It’s all blasting organs, strong choruses, and pounding percussion. It doesn’t feel like music from any one time period (though it does have a strong traditional Japanese feel) and so it doesn’t date the movie. I own the soundtrack CD of course and love how evocative it is. It doesn’t sound to me like anything except Akira, and that’s pretty impressive.

But oh, there’s so much more to this movie. It’s about so much more than the action and the spectacle and the adventure of it all. It’s filled with powerful and difficult themes. I know that many a paper has been written on it. About the common figure in modern Japanese drama of the corrupt politician. (And the general mistrust for all politicians for that matter.) About how evocative is the imagery of the apocalyptic destruction of Tokyo at the start of the film, especially in Japan which to this day is the only country to ever have been attacked with nuclear weapons. About the deeper metaphysics of the later part of the movie and the dangers of unleashing powers we cannot begin to understand in the name of progress.

As an eighteen-year-old watching this for the first time most of this went right over my head. I was just impressed to see animation that was so mature and so many miles away from the Disney pap that was all you could see in the theaters during my youth. (Even today there’s not really an industry in America making mature animation for adults – something I kind of regret.) I was being thrown headlong into a whole other world which I only barely understood. The fact that I could at that time think of this movie at the same time as Vampire Hunter D (which has not aged quite so well, and may someday be another review altogether) indicates how very little I understood the art of anime at the time. But it is as true now as it was all those years ago: if you want to see a truly great anime movie and expand your understanding of what is possible in the world of animation you need see only one movie. Akira.

September 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 210 – Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke – September 26th, 2010

For some reason, even though I adore fantasy movies and knights and curses and magic and clever thief characters and the like, this was never a staple for me. I’ve seen it through a couple of times and in bits and pieces a few more, but it’s not a go-to fantasy movie for me. Strange, since there’s plenty in it for me to enjoy as well as enough to make fun of that it keeps me grinning. It’s got a plot that’s not a typical quest and an anti-hero and I do like a clever thief and a strong female lead. And it’s all there. It just somehow never got on my regular rotation.

Fantasy movies are often placed in a sort of vague medieval setting and this one is no exception. It’s set in our world, obviously. There are mentions of the Crusades and all. It’s just a version of our world where one can make pacts with the devil to curse one’s enemies. The thing is, while the castles and clothing and general setting say medieval Europe (France, I assume but the specific country is never made super important), the music says 1980s. It says it loudly and clearly with a lot of synth. Somehow, what with this not being something I put in all that often, I’d managed to forget just how ever-present the music is. It was written by Alan Parsons, apparently because the director, Richard Donner, was listening to the Alan Parsons Project while scouting locations and ended up with the locations and music linked in his head. That’s all well and good, but half the time I expected women in leotards to jog in and start doing aerobics. That’s highly distracting, to say the least, especially since without the music the movie is beautifully done to place you in the time period.

It really comes off more as a fairy tale than a high fantasy. There are no elves here, or wizards. What there are instead are a pair of lovers, cursed by a man who wanted the woman for himself and was willing to turn from God to keep them apart. There is a monk who brought about their predicament and knows how to lift the curse. And there is a young thief with nothing to do with curses and lovers and Bishops, until he gets pulled into their story. It feels like something you could read in one of Andrew Lang’s Fairy books. According to IMDB it was marketed as being based on a real medieval legend, even though it’s not, so the feel of it being like a fairy tale wasn’t lost on others. It does mean that the music comes off as all the more odd, but the story itself is told so well.

Our main protagonist isn’t either of the lovers. It’s the thief. Phillipe “Mouse” Gaston, recently escaped from the dungeons of Aquila, meets up with Navarre, one of the lovers. And slowly he learns that Navarre and the hawk he carries with him are not at all what he thought. In the daytime Navarre is a man with a hawk. At night there is no Navarre and there is no hawk. There is a woman named Isabeau and a wolf. See what I mean about it sounding like a fairy tale? The vast majority of the movie is spent with Mouse traveling with Navarre and Isabeau, encountering various dangers and whatnot and getting to know Navarre in the day and Isabeau at night. Since they can’t speak to each other they both want him to act as a sort of go-between. To be honest, I find those parts far more interesting than the various fights and whatnot.

There’s a good deal of action in the movie, of course. It stands to reason, given that we need some dramatic tension and the Bishop who wants to keep them apart has been sending soldiers and all after them. The Captain of the guard gets a little more face time than the rest and there’s a rivalry set up between him and Navarre, since Navarre was the captain once. But then there’s also a hunter the Bishop brings in to hunt the wolf and I think he’s supposed to be a bigger deal than he ends up being. He shows up and then there’s an encounter, and then he’s dead. It seems somewhat perfunctory. A lot of the action is like that. Soldiers show up, Mouse and/or Isabeau is in danger (or Navarre in the case of the hunter), Navarre saves the day, let’s move on. So the focus really is on Mouse and his relationships with Navarre and Isabeau. The action scenes feel like punctuation to me. Which isn’t a problem. They’re not bad scenes, just not given enough time to be interesting beyond the visuals.

I would have to say that my biggest issue – aside from the incongruity of the synthy music – is in the end and how Navarre treats Isabeau when she’s in hawk form. I don’t blame him in the least for the jesses and hood. It’s plainly stated early on that the wolf and the hawk aren’t really aware of their human lives. They don’t know they’re human. They don’t remember what they’re told. While the wolf comes to Isabeau and the hawk to Navarre, and they know each other on some level, they’re not truly aware. Fine. But I think Navarre has either gotten too used to being the hawk’s owner, or it’s the time period slinking in. Because he tells Father Imperius to kill her in her hawk form if he fails to deal with the Bishop. Isabeau gets no say in the matter. Maybe she’d agree, not wanting to live on only human at night, without her beloved even parted as they are. But no. It’s not “Wait until nightfall and tell Isabeau and let her choose.” It’s “Kill her, make it fast.” Men.

Aside from that, it’s a lovely movie full of some beautiful scenery and a story that has elements from some classics, but is very much its own thing. There are some great performances from the leads as well. Even though I’ve got a very different role as my default vision of Rutger Hauer he does an excellent job as Navarre, who’s kind of a jackass but still an honorable man who truly loves Isabeau and would do anything for her. Michelle Pfeiffer gets some great moments in as Isabeau, who’s a rather tragic figure but also very strong, which I like. She’s not some wispy damsel, even if she doesn’t get a truly equal partnership in the whole thing. I managed to ignore Matthew Broderick’s amazing disappearing accent enough to enjoy his performance as Mouse, and he does do a great job with the awkward and bizarre position Mouse has landed himself in. Also worth noting is Leo McKern as Father Imperius. I love Leo McKern, who will always be a mish-mash of Rumpole of the Bailey and Number 2 for me, making his turn as a drunken monk tormented by one fateful action a nicely different vision of him, even if his laugh is instantly identifiable. He’s sort of like Brian Blessed that way.

This may not be one of my very favorite movies I’ll put in for comfort viewing, and the music may not have aged well. The special effects aren’t fantastic, but the movie doesn’t depend on them for more than a single scene so I don’t mind that. Really, the faults are all far outweighed by the merits. I’ll have to put it in more often, because it really is fun to watch.

September 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ladyhawke

September 26, 2010

Ladyhawke

I have fond memories of this movie from my youth. I can’t think of any other movies with quite the same spirit – it is a gritty and realistic fantasy film. In almost every regard the world this movie takes place in is a completely believable representation of medieval Italy. Or at least a parallel world Italy where an evil bishop rules the countryside with an iron fist from his fortress of Aquila. There is only one actual piece of magic in this movie, and it is that one piece of sorcery that defines the movie. The only other movie I can think of that even resembles this one is the medieval murder mystery Name of the Rose.

The movie follows the adventures of young Phillipe “The Mouse” Gaston, a thief and pickpocket who escapes from the prison in the impregnable fortress of Aquila. He is the first person to ever have done so, and is pursued by guards intent on returning him to the prison to be hung for his crimes. When they finally catch up to him, however, he is rescued by an exiled guard captain named Navarre who takes Phillipe’s escape as a symbol that the time for his return has come. For Navarre has a score to settle with the evil bishop. We discover thanks to the kindly monk Father Imperious that Navarre and his love Isabeau are under a curse, and poor Phillipe becomes mixed up in the whole affair.

I have a couple small quibbles with the film, watching it again tonight for the first time in a couple decades. The eighties-pop inspired Alan Parsons Project music somewhat dates the movie now for example. It’s still thrilling and exciting, but synth music in a fantasy movie is a very eighties thing. Then there’s Matthew Broderic’s transitory accent. Michelle Pfeiffer, Leo McKern and Rutgar Haur don’t seem to feel any need to put on different accents than their natural ones, but Broderick attempts at time to do an English accent, but then forgets it for most of the rest of the film.

There are so many more things about this movie that I love though. The cast is superb, even with Broderic’s accent. Rutger Haur is great at playing the driven man on a mission with nothing to lose. Matthew Broderick has the task of being both the comic relief for the film and the charming rogue. He manages to carry it off well, I think, and is a lot of fun to watch doing it. Leo McKern is the grizzled and tortured Father Imperious, who partly blames himself for the curse at the heart of the movie. He’s always fun to watch, and this movie is no exception to that. And Michelle Pfeiffer manages to take a role that’s written mostly as a damsel in distress and provide her with a little steel.

The design of the movie and the locations they found to film it in are both stunning. I never saw this movie in the theaters (I wish I had) and so have only seen it in the past on videocasette. Now that we own the DVD we can see it in its lush widescreen glory, and I have to say it is a treat. Part of the movie’s charm is in the fantasy setting and the world it takes place in, and director Richard Donner, along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro fill every frame with wonderful images from edge to edge.

What’s unique about this movie, for a fantasy film, is that it features almost no special effects. There are a couple scenes with the actors wearing special contacts and one blue-screen shot I can think of, and a couple other little tricks and some slick editing, but for the most part the movie relies on the performances and the script to relay the magic in the film. There are a lot of stunts and battles, but the movie doesn’t need lots of flash and hocus pocus to tell its story. I think that is part of why it has aged so well, music aside. There’s nothing in it that doesn’t still work today, really.

I feel like this movie is a bit of lost gem. People talk about Donner’s other movies from the eighties all the time. Superman and Superman II (well most of the good bits anyhow) and Goonies are all still movies I had people checking out at Blockbuster all the time. But this movie seems to have faded from memory. Which is too bad, because it’s a great story and a fun movie. I feel like it should be remembered in the same way as Neverending Story and Time Bandits, but nobody ever seems to bring up Ladyhawke in conversation in the circles I travel in. I think they should.

September 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment