A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

August 11, 2011

Neon Genesis: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion was still relatively new when Amanda and I first watched the series. TLA Video had just about every episode of the series on the shelf (dubbed VHS I believe) when we worked there in the late nineties, and although the series was renowned at the time it was not acclaimed as it is today as one of the greatest and most completely befuddling anime series ever created. Indeed I am pretty sure that we started watching the series before all of it had yet been imported to America, so we had to wait in eager anticipation for the last two tapes to come out here and we got to scratch our heads in wonder when the series reached it’s completely strange climax.

The genius for me of Neon Genesis was that it started out as such a typical anime show. It’s the story of a fourteen year old boy who is forced by circumstance and by his uncaring father to pilot a giant robot to defend the Earth from giant invading aliens. There were little hints, even in the early episodes and in the opening credits, of some of the grander schemes afoot, but for the first few episodes this series was very familiar territory, with a different monster each week to be defeated by Shinji and his Eva unit. Of course there was much more than that. There was the mystery of what the “angel” attackers were, why they were bent on breaking into Nerv headquarters, what was the mysterious event called “second impact” which had so radically changed the Earth around the time Shinji was born, what role did his father play in things, and just what exactly was the giant machine he was piloting. As the series progressed it became clear that the world was much deeper and more complex than it at first appeared, and I loved that slow reveal. (In much the same way that I love the meticulous construction of the world Alan Moore created for Watchmen.)

Although the story told in the original Neon Genesis series has a very definite end this is in many ways the show that will not die. So great had its success become, and so confusing was its end that it continued to spawn new projects years after it was done. There were two movies based on the series – Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion. Death and Rebirth is a pretty dense thing to get through because it’s a sort of “greatest hits” of the entire series, compressing 22 or so episodes into a single two hour experience. Then there’s End of Evangelion, which I have heard described as an alternative to the last two episodes in the series that presents more action and answers and less metaphysics and philosophy. There was also a “director’s cut” of the series that was released while I was working at Suncoast which is pretty much the whole series re-mastered and with some newer digital effects.

This movie is something completely different. In 2007 a project was begun to re-make Neon Genesis, preserving the character design, characters and overall plot, but doing it with a much bigger budget and with the benefit of hindsight. This re-make is intended to take the form of (I believe) four feature length theatrical films, although to date only two of them have come out. Knowing full well how confusing the end of the series is the makers of this movie have gone to considerable effort to start layering in the overarching plot much earlier. Shinji’s father is seen talking much more with his bosses in Seele – the conspiracy behind the Human Instrumentality Project, and it’s made much more clear that some kind of apocalyptic endgame is being planned by them.

I absolutely loved this film. We watched it in Blu Ray on my new computer’s hi-def widescreen monitor and it looks absolutely spectacular. I love seeing elements of the plot of the series being introduced much earlier in the new version, and I also loved all the familiar faces and scenes from the original. The lavish big-budget treatment and extensive use of computer effects fits very well with the epic story and lager than life creations in the world of Eva. This movie is a treat for the eyes, particularly near the end when things really begin to get blown up.

I will admit that I found some changes from the series jarring. Since this is in movie form the opening credits, which were one of my favorite parts of the series, are gone. Shinji’s first time piloting the Eva unit is significantly different than how I remembered it in the series – in particular I missed the moment when the Eva’t helmet gets damaged and a giant eye emerges, seeming to look right at Shinji in the reflection in a skyscraper. Also, part of the whole point of that first encounter was that the Eva seemed to come to life after all was lost, and when in theory it should be unable to move because its external power supply was disconnected and its charge was run down. I miss details like that. Oh, and I really miss “Fly Me to the Moon” over the closing credits.

I’m very much looking forward now to watching the second movie in the new series. I haven’t bought it yet, but I will be soon. Then it’s going to be a mighty long wait for the other two films. If they even come out.

I kind of hope that the proposed live action film never gets off the ground. Everything I’ve heard about the dreadful live action Akira makes me dread what might be done to this other anime classic.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mist

July 8, 2011

The Mist

This was one of those “what on Earth was I thinking” purchases I made while working at Blockbuster. I really had no intention of buying this movie. I’m not a fan of horror films, really. It’s never been my preferred genre. I enjoy the stories of Stephern King, but movies based on them are hit and miss. Of course this movie is from Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, who has made a career out of doing spectacular adaptations of Stephen King. At the time that I bought this, though, I didn’t know that. I had read the story many years ago and it didn’t particularly make me want to watch a movie based on it. You know what finally made me decide to buy it (after being exposed to the preview for a couple months?) It was the tentacles. There was a shot in the preview that had Cthuloid tentacles descending from the clouds, and because I’m not quite right in the head this image made me want to own the entire movie. But I didn’t watch it until today.

I have to admit that I’m glad Darabont keeps going back to Stephen King, because he’s clearly got a knack for King’s work. King is all about putting regular people in dire circumstances and letting them be human. In this particular case the dire circumstances involve people trapped in a grocery store when an unnatural mist rolls down out of the mountains above Castle Rock after a thunder storm. Professional painter David Drayton goes to the store to stock up on supplies after the storm with his son and his litigious neighbour but while they’re there the mist rolls in. At first, of course, it looks like it’s just a strange weather pattern, but soon it becomes clear that there are “things” in the mist. Things that will grab people and tear them apart.

The film, like the story it’s based on, is more about the psychological tension of people trapped in close quarters with each other while something horrific is going on. At first there are skeptics, like David’s neighbour, who refuse to believe that there’s anything supernatural going on. They don’t last long. Then there is the crazy religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody who believes that the mist is the realization of the book of Revelations and that the beasts in it are God’s just vengeance for the hubris of humankind. Almost worse than the creatures outside are the evils brought forth in the simple humans trapped in the store. In some people the crisis brings out the best, such as with bag-boy Ollie Weeks who repeatedly proves himself to be an unexpected hero and our protagonist David who is the voice of reason and finds himself taking command when nobody else will. Many other people, however, become spiteful, frightened, useless or dangerous.

What I found myself especially enjoying about the movie was the deft way that Darabont built the tension and maintained it. The real terror in this movie comes mostly from the fact that we almost never see the beasts in the mist unobscured. They are terrifying nightmare fodder that capture and consume anyone foolhardy enough to venture outside, but we mostly see the results of their actions rather than the creatures themselves. This makes it all the more dreadful when eventually a small group do have to venture outside in search of medicine and possibly survivors at the pharmacy next door. We get to see some of the smaller beasts – giant flying scorpion bugs and four-winged lizard predators as well as terrifying spider things that spit acidic webs – but the most deadly things are just shapes in the fog, ill defined and all the more frightening because of it.

Once you’re done watching the movie you realize that everything is build up to the inevitable conclusion. Every dreadful night-time encounter or spate of in-fighting among the survivors is a part of a larger picture that’s being painted. I have to say that I think I’ve seen this ending done before in other horror films. I haven’t seen it done so well. Darabont spends the whole film creating a state of mind – an overwhelming sense of dread – so that he can sell the events of the conclusion, and he does it perfectly.

There is much that I enjoyed about this movie. I loved the creature design and the effects work. The things in the mist are fantastic nightmare fodder and the glimpses you get of them, particularly near the conclusion, make it clear that they are highly developed, almost majestic killing machines. The acting throughout the movie is superb. After the dreadful Punnisher movie he did I didn’t have high hopes for Thomas Jane as our protagonist David. As Mrs. Carmody Marcia Gay Hardon is almost as horrifying as the creatures outside – she completely sells this woman who has felt under appreciated and put upon for her entire life but who now sees these horrific events as her vindication. Every one of the characters presented is well fleshed out with understandable motivations for their actions, so even the people who are the most despicable are still terrifyingly human.

Again: I am not a fan of horror movies in general. I don’t necessarily think it’s a fun time to be terrified. This movie, though, has instantly leaped to near the top of my list of favorite horror films. I don’t know if it does anything original with the common tropes of people trapped during an apocalyptic event (which I associate mostly with zombie movies) but it does everything so very well that I don’t mind that I feel like I’ve seem most of this before. Indeed as bleak and unsettling as the movie is there are parts of it that I kind of want to watch again. It must be that same thing in me that loves seeing the aliens winning in the new War of the Worlds remake: I have a soft spot for supernatural Armageddon tales.

July 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 441 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – May 15th, 2011

This is one of those movies that’s become so deeply entrenched in popular culture that some references to it are now their own beasts, detached from their original context and living a life of their own. It’s always strange when that happens and you know the roots. It’s also a movie deeply entrenched in the culture of the time it was made, not long after the erection of the Berlin Wall and well into the Cold War. The threat of nuclear war was quite present and the Cuban Missile Crisis was only a couple of years in the past. That’s a whole lot of fear going on and here comes a satire about nuclear annihilation with a title exhorting us to stop worrying. Brilliant.

It isn’t often that I’m reminded that there’s an age difference of several years between myself and Andy. It just isn’t something that impacts our lives on a regular basis and it hasn’t for some time now. But for this movie it happens to be a crucial difference between what we grew up with. I was still a fairly young kid during the end of the Cold War. By the time I was old enough to really start to understand the geopolitical forces behind it and its implications it was drawing to a close with perestroika and glasnost and so for me? It was all in the past. My parents sheltered me from talk of nuclear weapons and war when I was a child. Prior to the restructuring of the Soviet Union the most I knew about the USSR and atomic power was that something horrible had happened called Chernobyl. I vividly remember watching news footage of the Berlin Wall coming down (though mostly metaphorically) and knowing that it was something momentous and huge and meaningful, but not quite grasping it and having to be given a rather large chunk of history education in a very short time. So what I’m saying is that I never grew up scared of nuclear war. I didn’t know where my local fallout shelter was (though I can name two within walking distance of my house now, oddly enough) and I never had nightmares about atomic bombs. It’s all fairly historical for me where as for Andy? He’s just that much older than me that it was part of his youth.

That sort of thing can drastically change how one relates to a movie like this. It’s satire, yes, but the point of satire is to poke at something serious. It’s to take something somber and light it in a way that exposes ridiculous and darkly humorous crevices you wouldn’t otherwise notice. But how you see the revelation of that humor can differ depending on how you’ve seen the serious part first. For me? It’s largely academic. I’ve read a lot about the history and the science but I never lived in fear of it. And a whole lot of this movie depends on that fear and that dread and that possibility. The plot is built upon the idea that somewhere something could go wrong and for no good reason at all, plus complications and communications glitches, we could all be blown to bits. And somehow it seeks to make that very concept funny.

Maybe it’s because I never lived it that I’ve always found this movie to be funny but have to view the satirical portions of it through the lens of historical context. Sure, a lot of what’s being made fun of here are military attitudes that can translate to modern times, but the specifics are pretty clear. We begin the movie with a voiceover telling us that it’s entirely possible that the Russians have made a “doomsday device” capable of killing everything on the planet. Then we meet Brigadier General ‘Jack’ Ripper, whose paranoid delusions about fluoridation lead him to set in motion a nuclear air strike on the USSR and make it nearly impossible to avert. He figures that when the President and his men realize they can’t stop the attack they’ll have to simply press forward. It would seem to be the end except that his second in command, an exchange officer from the UK (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake) manages to puzzle out the code to stop the planes carrying the bombs and get the information to the War Room in time. Or so they thought.

Now, that all sounds like it could be deadly serious. A taut drama about nuclear war and the dangers of not enough failsafes and checks on power. Indeed, the original text the movie was based on was a serious story about accidental nuclear war. But from the names, like the previously mentioned Ripper and Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano to the President telling the drunken Soviet Premier that of course he enjoys talking to him and will call to say hello sometimes, well, it’s clear that this isn’t an entirely serious movie. Ripper’s fears of fluoridation (leading him to drink only rain water and grain alcohol) are wildly exaggerated. The characters, aside from the President, perhaps, are all caricatures. Or rather, they’re meant to be. Take a peek at the trivia about the military figures some of the characters were based on for some frightening reading. But then there’s the Russian ambassador and Dr. Strangelove himself, not to mention Major ‘King’ Kong, who so famously rides the bomb while whooping it up. There’s no fighting in the war room and animals will be bred and slaughtered. It’s a movie full of iconic moments of humor formed from the most serious and frightening moments.

Of course a huge amount of the humor that I personally love here comes from Peter Sellers, who played three different roles in the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and of course Dr. Strangelove himself. And while the first and third of those roles deliver some hilarious moments and lines (and I can see why Strangelove’s final scene would cause the cast to start corpsing), the role of the President is a little different. All of his humor comes from being the most reasonable and soft spoken of characters in the scenes he’s in. His interactions with George C. Scott’s General ‘Buck’ Turgidson are some of the best in the movie. They play off each other brilliantly and I love every moment of it. Some people might find Slim Pickens as Kong to be more wildly funny, but it’s Scott and Sellers all the way for me.

One of the things I love about this movie is how focused it is on its locations. We really don’t move around much here. There’s the interior of the B-52 carrying the two bombs Dear John and Hi There! (nuclear warheads – handle with care). There’s the Air Force base, Burpleson, where Mandrake and Ripper spend most of their time. And there’s the War Room. We get one scene in Turgidson’s bedroom but that’s it. Everything is so closed off from everything else. Isolated and cut off, which is part of where the tension of the movie comes from. It’s a fantastic way to set the mood in such a way that adds to the situation so that the humor of it all plays off even stronger.

This really is a fantastic movie and well deserving of its place in cinematic history as far as I’m concerned. The acting, writing, directing, cinematography, it’s all wonderfully done and hits every satirical note perfectly. Satire can be difficult. In the wrong hands it can be sloppy and overdone. But in these hands? It is sharp and witty and fun. It’s full of fantastic and eminently quotable moments and since it’s rooted in the Cold War fears of the United states it’s had a history of appeal that’s hard to beat. I don’t know how a younger audience seeing it for the first time now would approach it, but I’d be curious to hear if it plays this far removed from its historical context. I hope truly hope it does, because it’s far too good to be dismissed and unwatched.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

May 15, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I’m guessing that this movie doesn’t resonate with the youth of today the way it did with me when I first saw it in the Eighties. I saw this fir the first time in eighty-four or eighty-five. I would have been about twelve years old, and like any twelve-year-old at the height of the cold war I was scared to death of the threat of nuclear Armageddon. I lay awake in bed contemplating my impotence in the face of the possibility of being obliterated by capricious forces completely outside of my control. As such I am probably part of the last generation to appreciate this movie for how terrifying its subject matter is.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time that I saw this (because I was horrified by the events portrayed however farcical they may be) but it really is brilliant how this movie does actually help you to stop worrying. It takes a certain mad brilliance to find comedy in our most dreadful nightmares, and Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick have just that right kind of genius.

The plot of this movie involves a rogue General sending the bombers under his command on a mission to bomb the USSR. He has no authority to do so, but he’s able to issue orders under a plan that allows independent action should the command structure in Washington be destroyed by a sneak attack nuclear strike. Of course the command structure is still very much in place and as General Ripper is sealing his base and warning his men that the Ruskies might well come disguised as American soldiers to confuse them the President and his chiefs of staff are gathering in the war room to figure out how best to avoid catastrophe. To add to the tension it is revealed when the President contacts the Soviet premier that the Soviets have just installed an ultimate weapon. It is a doomsday device that will shroud the entire Earth in nuclear fallout and destroy all life on the planet if even a single bomb should be detonated inside the Russian boarders.

It’s a marvelously uncomplicated film. The primary action takes place in three locations. In Ripper’s office he is holed up with his XO, a RAF officer named Mandrake on loan from the UK as part of an officer exchange program. In the skies above Russia we follow the valiant crew of one of the B-52s as they fight what they believe to be the last war, completely cut off from all communication with home. In the war room under the Pentagon President Muffley tries desperately to avoid war and the end of all life on Earth, although his efforts are hampered by many of the people who should be assisting him like the Russian Ambassador de Sadesky, gung-ho General Buck Turgidson and his absolutely mad ex-Nazi science advisor Dr. Strangelove.

Because this movie is so stark, with its harsh black & white presentation and few simple locations, the entire thing is carried by the performances of the cast. It’s a good thing that those performances are so memorable and brilliant. Sterling Hayden plays Jack Ripper completely straight as a man who has lost his grip on reality and in his paranoia and delusions actually believes he is doing the right and honerable thing by precipitating World War III. He’s creepy and frightening as he flatly declares that this is what must be done to prevent the Communists from tainting our precious bodily essences. Slim Pickins is Major Kong, the pilot of one of the bombers sent on this fatal mission. Again – he plays the role seriously and the plight of his plane and his crew is a stirring adventure story – except that if they succeed there will be dire results for every person on the planet. (There are parts of his plot which are humorous, but the jokes are less blatant and more sly – like the contents of the emergency survival kits.) On the other end of the scale there’s George C Scott with an uncharacteristically over-the-top and insane portrayal. (Apparently it was a source of much tension between him and Kubrick that his most outrageous takes were the ones cut into the final film.) It might not be the performance he wanted to give or the version of the character he felt comfortable with, but it does make for great viewing, and he’s one of the best things in the movie.

Of course it is Peter Sellers who really headlines the film and makes it all work. He is the desperate, intelligent and harried RAF officer Mandrake. He is conciliatory President Muffley. And his outrageous and hilarious portrayal of the titular Dr. Strangelove is pure classic Sellers. You can’t help laughing.

In my youth I loved the madcap physical humor of the Dr. Strangelove character (I loved all the Pink Panther films for the same reason.) As I’ve aged I’ve mellowed somewhat and nowadays although Dr. Strangelove gets the most laughs out of me it is President Merkin Muffley who is my favorite character in the movie. He’s the rational one trying to sort everything out, the lone voice of reason. His one-sided phone conversations with the distraught and drunken Soviet Premier Kissoff are for me the highlight of the movie. I love his quiet desperation and determination to somehow turn this dreadful situation around.

This movie is so iconic and memorable. It has brilliant writing with such classic lines as “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here – this is the War Room!” It has a host of fantastic performances. It tackles an uncomfortable subject and manages to allow us to laugh at the preposterous dilemma of the cold war. I love a good dark comedy, and this of the darkest and the best.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

War of the Worlds (2005)

February 27, 2011

War of the Worlds (2005)

I can’t remember why I bought this movie. I mean, it’s not a good movie. I never thought it was going to be a good movie. But I’m a sucker for a big budget sci-fi movie directed by Stephen Spielberg. What amazed me, when I put this in my DVD player to watch it one afternoon, is how much I actually ended up enjoying the movie. It’s got plot holes big enough for an alien tripod to walk through and it is so blatantly and stupidly manipulative that I know I should feel insulted just watching it, but in spite of that it is unbelievably fun to watch. At least I found it to be so.

Tom Cruise plays a jerk. This is something that would have shocked me in the days before Magnolia, but now I realise that it’s something he’s actually good at. His character’s name is Ray Ferrier and Spielberg goes to great pains to show us that he’s a regular working slob. As the movie starts his disapproving wife is dropping off his children with him for a weekend. His son clearly hates him for his negligence and his daughter knows he’s doing his best but she also knows he’s a complete fuck up. He’s a guy whose life has gone completely to shit and he knows it. If it were just a movie about him and his shitty life it would quickly become unbearable to watch – but luckily some aliens soon show up and start blowing stuff up.

I don’t think I’m supposed to, but I root for the aliens in this movie. It’s easy to do – they’re unstoppable killing machines that destroy everything in their path. Truth be told there is pretty much nothing redeemable about the people in this movie. Sure the two kids Robbie and Rachel are innocents just caught up in an apocalypse, and I suppose Ray is an okay guy at heart who just wants his kids to respect him, but in general the people in this movie, once the panic sets in, are unappealing desperate monsters. And oh, the screaming. So much screaming.

As we follow this trio of survivors through their series of narrow escapes and watch the chaos unleashed by the alien invasion I begin to feel that the world would be a better place if all of humanity were wiped out. The aliens are a natural disaster before which nothing can stand. Well, nothing except for the aliens’ collective stupidity and lack of research regarding Terran viruses.

Let’s pause for a bit here and talk plot holes. There are vast portions of this movie that make no sense. Such as the notion that the tripods have been buried under the earth since before we built our cities there, waiting for the right time to beam the pilots down and start exterminating us. In the scene where the first tripod bursts up and starts killing people a couple of police men argue about what could be under the ground there causing all this disturbance. Could it be a subway? A broken water main? Which brings up the question – how did these buried alien vehicles (which appear to be just a few meters under the ground) never get discovered by workers digging subway tunnels or laying out water pipes? Then, later in the movie when a crazed mob tries to take Ray’s car from him and he pulls out a gun Amanda was flabbergasted that apparently almost nobody else in this huge mob had a gun. Blame the Democrats I suppose.

I wish I could explain why I enjoy this movie. It’s a guilty pleasure. If you read Amanda’s review you’ll see that very clearly that in this case our opinions diverge. I can’t deny that this is a stupid movie about horrific things happening to irritating people. Maybe it’s just Spielberg’s adept manipulation at work, but I get into this movie. There’s a kind of thrill I get when I hear that airhorn/didgerydoo that signals impending destruction. I love those deadly, unstoppable, three-limbed, rock stupid aliens.

February 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

12 Monkeys

October 1, 2010

12 Monkeys

This may be the most perfect time-travel sci-fi movie ever filmed. Or at least the most Gilliam time-travel sci-fi film. It appeals to me on so many levels. It has a fantastic script that addresses things like the apocalypse, time travel, madness and pre-determinism. It’s hard to believe that this movie wasn’t written by Terry Gilliam because the movie incorporates the best bits of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Fisher King. It’s like the uber-Gilliam masterpiece that was the culmination of all his work up to that time.

The movie starts with a dream. It’s a recurring dream that James Cole has. The only dream he has. He’s a young boy in this dream, in an airport, and he witnesses a shooting. There’s a blond woman and a red-headed man. When Cole wakes up it is the present. He is in a prison in a post-apocalyptic world after a virus has wiped out most of humankind. A virus that was released thirty years ago in the year 1996. Cole is “volunteered” to research how the virus began. He is chosen for his tenacity, his toughness, and his memory and attention to detail. The powers that be in this dystopian present send him back in time to try to figure out where and how the virus got started.

The trouble begins when he ends up in the wrong time. He’s supposed to be looking for clues in 1996, but he arrives in 1990. Here he is arrested and put in an insane asylum because he is a violent raving lunatic who thinks that he is in the past. His court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, is fascinated by his delusions. She has pity for him and thinks there is something more to his story. In the asylum he encounters a manic crazy man named Jeffrey Goines who befriends him and eventually helps him to escape.

When Cole returns to the present he is disoriented and confused. In 1990 he was pumped full of drugs to keep him sedated in the asylum. But he discovers, while being interrogated by the scientists of the present, that Goines, the asylum patient, is somehow mixed up in an organization known as the Army of the 12 Monkeys. And that they might be related to the release of the virus back in 1996 that wiped out five billion people and drove the human race to live in hermetically sealed environments underground. He is returned to the past, this time to 1996, where he seeks out Dr. Railly again and resumes his quest to find out the truth behind the 12 Monkeys.

I’ll go no further with the plot than that, because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the plot. It’s an extremely tight script that works its way inside your head and makes you question everything. As things progress Cole begins to question his own sanity. Perhaps the present world he comes from really is all in his head. Perhaps there is no pending apocalypse.

The movie does a great job building the tension. It has a mystery at its core to do with the virus and the Army of the 12 Monkeys. It has Cole’s crumbling sanity. There are parts of the movie that are deliberately ambiguous. There’s a voice in Cole’s head, for example, who may or may not be somebody else travelling through time from the present to the past. At one point in the asylum he hallucinates one of the guards from the prison in the present. Clearly he IS cracking and going mad, but the question then becomes just what exactly is real.

As with The Fisher King one of the primary attractions of this movie is the astonishing performance that Gilliam gets from his cast. Bruce Willis shows throughout the movie that he is not afraid to completely lose himself in his character. James Cole is a severely unstable and tortured man. He is at the same frightening and pitiable. Capable of frightening acts of violence but torn apart by the journey he is on. It’s a fascinating performance. Then there’s Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly. She’s so fantastic. Kathryn’s arc somewhat echoes Cole’s. Through her interactions with him she starts to doubt everything she holds true about her own world. She’s a strong, intelligent, competent and caring woman caught up in something that feels too large for a single person to understand.

By far the most surprising performance for me though was that of Brad Pitt. At the time that this movie came out I thought he was just some pretty-boy actor and teen heartthrob. But here he not only played completely against type as the lunatic Jeffrey Goines, but he excelled at creating a compelling and upsetting character. Goines is all manic paranoia. He’s loud, abrasive and impulsive. He’s full of ticks and twitches and he has this crazy cockeyed stare. This performance was so startling and so compelling that it blew me away, and it still does every time I watch the movie again. Amazing.

Then there’s the aesthetic of the movie. The design and the lighting and the way it was filmed. The dystopic present is like an extension of the world of Gilliam’s movie Brazil. It’s all giant rubber seals and crazy cobbled together electronics. You get the feeling that when the human race almost got wiped out much of our technology was destroyed as well, and that everything in this new age is constructed from remnants of the old world bodged together and re-purposed. We do eventually get to see the time machine in action, and it looks more steampunk than futuristic. Everything looks as if it is cobbled together and falling apart at the same time.

In the past James and Kathryn find themselves descending into some frightening and chaotic fringes of our society. They look very much like the homeless haunts from The Fisher King, to such a degree that at times I expected the camera to pan over Robin Williams singing about New York in June. In the end both the present and the past have an unsettling feel to them, which is fine because the movie is, ultimately, unsettling. There’s a fatalism to the whole thing. Cole often goes on about how there’s nothing he can do to save the people of the past. The virus that wiped out humankind has already happened. He can only observe. There’s a wonderfully self-aware and meta part where Cole observes that living in the past is like watching a movie you’ve already seen. Everything is going to happen the same but the experience will be different because your perspective on it will have changed.

Finally, in the closing act as everything comes together neatly and answers are revealed, the whole tone of the movie changes. Gilliam moves things into a soft focus with a sort of over-exposed washed out feel. It has a very deliberate dreamlike quality to it, and the final minutes of the movie resonate with me and stick in my mind.

This movie is a masterful work of art. From the script to the acting to the directing. Every part fits so perfectly with every other part that I cannot find fault with any of it. If you are at all a fan of disturbing science fiction that will get inside your head and make you think then you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. If you’ve seen it already then you should watch it again. Everything is going to happen the same, but the experience my be different. And it’s a ride worth taking again anyhow.

October 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 192 – Southland Tales

Southland Tales – September 8th, 2010

I am sorry to report that we are not watching a Star Trek movie for the show’s 44th anniversary. This is not because we don’t like Star Trek. We love Star Trek. We love it so much, we’re planning a two week Trekstravaganza wherein we will watch all of the Star Trek movies (yes, all of them), both Trekkies documentaries and Galaxy Quest. But we’re still a couple of movies short and we hadn’t planned ahead for two weeks of Trek and we already watched our other Shatner movie. So, we promise there will be Trek. Just not tonight. No, tonight we have some semi-post-apocalyptic dystopia satire with a heaping helping of biblical allegory!

Around when a couple of neo-Hummer-esque cars started having sex on screen, I decided to simply check out. The movie was pretty bizarre for the first fifty minutes, but really, what can you say to a chrome car penis? There are even characters in the movie who have that reaction. But not too long after that there’s Bai Ling cozying up to Wallace Shawn. They dance later on. And kiss. With tongue. Yeah, that was up near the top of my list of things I never thought I’d see in a movie. And that, I think, pretty much sums up my viewing experience. This movie is just a big old ball of things I don’t think I could have ever predicted would be put together on film.

It almost feels like what I’d expect John Waters would do if told to make a modern-US dystopia sci-fi allegory. I know that probably doesn’t make much sense, but it’s got this sort of tongue-in-cheek crassness about it that I associate with Waters. It’s clearly satire, but in the way Cry Baby is. A satire that’s laughing at itself as much as at what it’s satirizing, and at the same time pointing out serious topics. In this case, issues of US politics, media coverage, privacy, war, terrorism, teen horniness and the energy crisis. But then there’s the car penis and a whole lot of people wanting to have sex and talking about it Very Bluntly.

I’m honestly not sure what to say next. There are things to be said, but I’m not sure what they are, really. I could try to summarize the plot, I guess. I make no promises about it making sense, since the movie’s kind of convoluted. And by ‘kind of convoluted’ I mean ‘really fucking bizarre’. Okay, so, the US was bombed by someone, but it’s never made clear who. In the wake of the attacks the PATRIOT ACT is expanded into USIdent and people are basically monitored by the government all the time. War with several countries in the Middle East forced the US to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, leading to the rise of Fluid Karma, invented by Baron Von Westphalen (played by Wallace Shawn). It’s mysterious and no one’s really sure how it works but it generates wireless energy and comes from a big offshore plant. Then there’s Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), a famous actor with ties to the Republican party, who went missing for several days and then surfaced with a case of amnesia. And there’s the Neo-Marxists, who want to take down the government. There’s Roland and Ronald Taverner (played by Seann William Scott), a set of twins, one of whom is working with the Neo-Marxists. The Neo-Marxists are filming Boxer with former porn star Krysta Now (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) in an effort to blackmail his contacts in the Republican party into voting for a bill that will limit USIdent. But there’s more going on with Boxer cause he’s got this screenplay about the end of the world and he’s not sure where it came from.

Oh, and Justin Timberlake narrates a good chunk of the movie. He’s all scarred up from the war and has his own little smiley face sticker that pops up and has his stitches, sort of like he’s the Comedian from Watchmen. He gets a dream dance sequence set to The Killers’ All These Things That I’ve Done mid-movie. He fits into the plot, but I think he fits more if you read the additional graphic novels that give all the pre-story for the movie. His narration is mostly for mood, really. It doesn’t help explain anything. It just sort of sets the stage and then moves you through things.

Did you notice the names up there? Wallace Shawn, Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake? Yeah, add in SNL alums Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Nora Dunn and Jon Lovitz (and those are just off the top of my head – I stopped watching ages ago so I might have missed some), John Larroquette, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, the aforementioned Bai Ling (famous mostly for being famous, right?) and fucking Christopher Lambert. And Kevin Smith and Janeane Garofalo supposedly had parts too but I missed Kevin Smith and only caught Garofalo in the corner of the screen at the end. That is one bizarre collection of a cast. Some of them play things semi-serious (Bai Ling – whom I suspect is basically playing herself), some of them play things tongue-in-cheek, and some just go way past that and don’t bother hiding the attempt at laughs.

Maybe I should also try to address the biblical stuff. I had to stop and take a break up there with the plot. I lost track of things. There’s this whole allegory going on, with the Book of Revelations, which Timberlake’s character, Private Pilot Abilene, quotes from a hell of a lot. It’s messy, and I had to look up the IMDB FAQ on the movie to get a better sense of it, but really, it’s not that hard to guess that there’s something going down. What with the quoting from Revelations and the glowing and the end of the world stuff. I would guess that, much like the rest of the movie, it’s half satire, half serious. One could probably spend a good amount of time picking it all apart, but I did that to The Matrix in college. I’m good for messianic allegory analysis, thanks.

All in all, I enjoyed it. I really did. I smiled and laughed and by the end, when Mandy Moore and Sarah Michelle Gellar are waltzing on a mega-zeppelin, I didn’t really care if it made sense. Time travel twins, rifts in space-time, an energy source that’s apparently also a drug, musical interludes, car sex and Dwayne Johnson’s character’s identity crisis and rapidly twitching fingers. It’s all so incongruous and yet it’s weirdly fun. Enough so that I think I’ll hunt down the additional material. Not that I think it will help make sense of anything, but if it’s the same tone as the movie, it should be fun to be confused by too.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Southland Tales

September 8, 2010

Southland Tales

I don’t recall why I bought this movie. It was one I picked up used at Blockbuster when everything was going pear shaped for the store and movies were marked down under three dollars each, and I think it was recommended to me by one of my employees as a messed up brain twister of a movie. But really… I bought a movie staring The Rock and Sean William Scott? How odd.

Okay. So this movie was pitched to me as “batshit crazy” and I likes me some batshit crazy in my apocalyptic sci-fi. But there’s batshit, and then there’s BATSHIT. Is it possible for a movie to make LESS sense when it has an expository narration track added on? Maybe it’s not really that. Maybe it’s that when you hear expository narration your brain then expect things to make more sense. Whereas this narration is just another layer to the fever-dream that is this movie.

Okay. Here’s the thing. Writer/Director Richard Kelly knows how to tap into the unconsciousness and bring it to film. I very much look forward to reviewing Donnie Darko and presenting my own interpretation of it for that very reason. But the unconsciousness that he is tapping into is his own. Dreams are such a subjective thing. They’re constructed by our brains from our own memories and associations, so it’s a little disturbing to look into another person’s mind in this way. All the nonsensical random connections of a dream are there, but none of the neural map that explains why these things are happening the way they are.

I’ll attempt a plot summary now. The movie is an apocalypse tale supposedly rooted in an interpretation of the book of Revelations. It takes place in an alternate future past (the year is 2008) wherein World War III has happened. Martial law has been declared, the government has taken over the internet and is using it to spy on us in a kind of Big Brotherly way. You need a visa to travel between states. The draft has been re-instated for the war in the middle east. Gasoline is so expensive that everybody now depends on a mysterious form of energy produced from tidal currents known as “Fluid Karma.” All of this is explained in the first few minutes of the film using stills from the prequel comic books – which I haven’t read.

Dwayne Johnson (don’t call him The Rock) plays Boxer Santaros, a famous movie star who is somehow related to a conservative congressman running for president. He has amnesia. He is currently living with his girlfriend, the socially conscious porn star Krysta Now played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. (He doesn’t remember that he already has a wife.) Together the two of them have written a screenplay about the end of the world which Boxer wants to direct and star in. The screenplay is about Jericho Cane – a man who knows that the end of the world is coming because an alteration to the tides is causing the rotation of the Earth to slow down, which apparently has caused a rift in the fourth dimension. (For those of you keeping count that’s two Christ characters already.) There’s a shadowy organization of Neo Marxists who have taped footage of the porn star and the movie star together, which supposedly is going to give them some kind of political clout in the upcoming elections. But there’s another plot that the Marxists have, which involves having Boxer implicate in a staged double homicide. Involved in this plot is another amnesiac, Roland (or maybe Ronald) Taverner (played by Sean William Scott) who is being made by the Marxists to pose as a police officer and take Boxer on a documentary style cruise around LA. His twin brother is being held hostage by the Marxists. Taverner was involved in a friendly-fire incident which scarred the face of the narrator of the film Private Pilot (another biblical reference no doubt)… although this fact doesn’t actually seem to have anything to do with the movie… it’s just part of the back story.

Man. That was a whole lot of plot summary there and it only covers about the first five minutes of the movie. It doesn’t even begin to address the twisted contortions of the plot. Everybody is in cahoots with everybody else. Everybody is working for somebody. Maybe. If they’re not working for somebody else. There’s a nefarious scientist who has developed the Fluid Karma and in addition to using it as an alternate power source he has been experimenting with it as some kind of hallucinatory drug and giving it to soldiers overseas as part of his experiments. He has a trio of strange women who follow him around (not the maiden the mother and the crone, but the harlot, the mother and the soothsayer it seems.) There’s the shadowy government organization U.S.Ident which monitors all internet and phone traffic and apparently requires all its employees to wear translucent shirts. Because it is the future. The Marxists have infiltrated U.S.Ident and Ident has planted bugs on the Marxists. There are several Marxist cells working at cross-purposes I think, and it’s not at all clear what their true purpose is. There’s an underworld gun dealer working out of his ice-cream truck who apparently knows something about what’s going on. There’s the presidential candidate whose wife runs U.S.Ident, daughter is Boxer’s wife, and campaign manager is Boxer’s agent. If your head is starting to spin then you’re beginning to get some small sense of just how odd the movie is. But only beginning.

Another layer of strange is added by the huge and befuddling cast. I can see the appeal of casting, for example, John Larroquette (Dan from Night Court) as the sleazy campaign manager and Bai Ling as… well pretty much as Bai Ling as far as my wife and I can tell. It’s a ton of fun to see Wallace Shawn as the mad scientist – and he plays him as marvelously and completely insane. How did they get Christopher Lambert as the arms dealer though? Then Jon Lovitz shows up as a creepy crooked cop. Along with SNL alums as all the Marxist guerrillas and the head of U.S.Ident. It really adds to the fever-dream quality to have all these recognizable faces in strange roles. It’s very much a dream thing to see people and know who they are but have them behave in an altogether atypical fashion, and this movie has that in spades.

Then there’s the strangeness for strangeness sake. There’s a musical interlude in the middle of the film which is great fun but doesn’t really have anything to do with anything else. There’s a kind of Tarantinoesque bit involving a Japanese prime minister and the deal he makes to get access to Fluid Karma. There’s quite explicit footage of cars having sex. And there’s the final climactic moment which brought to mind for me nothing so much as the end of Repo Man, which I now desperately want to add to my collection.

I actually had a lot of fun watching this movie. It didn’t make any sense and I don’t really think it was intended to. I gave up early on and decided just to enjoy the ride. It boggles my mind that so many talented people signed on to become a part of this project, and that makes me wonder if perhaps there really was a deeper meaning behind everything that would make the craziness resolve into something lucid. I strongly suspect not however. As with any dream it might be inspired by ideas you have in your head when it happens, but ultimately it’s just your sleeping brain trying to make sense of randomly firing neurons as the days events are linked into the net of your memories. Any logic or cohesiveness it might have had will fade away in the light of day.

September 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment