A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

July 5, 2011

Blood Reign: Curse of the Yoma

Way back on the third day of our movie-a-day project we reviewed Hellboy: Storm of Swords. It was a direct to video animated Hellboy story inspired by Japanese folk tales and it reminded me of an anime I had seen years ago, but I couldn’t think of the name of it. Then again, when we reviewed Ninja Scroll a little while ago I was reminded of this mysterious and bloody anime from bygone days. It was so irritating – like an itch – to have this movie I only vaguely remembered and couldn’t therefore find. So I spent about an hour searching the internet until a title leaped out at me. “Curse of the Undead Yoma.”

This was it! This was that mystery movie I couldn’t remember! Amanda and I first sought this out when we saw this trailer and were instantly captivated. Just haunting, wistful song in the trailer made us curious. What was this strange looking movie filled with ghosts and demons? Luckily at the time we were working for TLA video and they had this in their vast collection of anime, so we were able to watch it soon after seeing the preview.

I think that version we watched way back in the nineties was different than this, which we picked up on DVD last week. For one thing, I don’t remember the other version being two separate episodes as this one is. For another I remember being utterly confused and befuddled by the goings on the last time I saw this, whereas tonight it seemed relatively simple and clear. Either I was very tired the last time I saw this or the version we were watching was compressed and edited. Maybe it was also dubbed, which could add to the confusion (this being in the days before DVD when everything was properly available in multiple languages.) Anyhow, back then this movie was just a series of interesting pictures strung together by only the vaguest of plots.

Tonight I was able to understand the plot pretty well. Young Ninja Hikage is sent to kill his childhood friend Marou after their master is killed by a mysterious demon. He tracks Marou to a lost village where nobody has any memory of their past. It’s an unsettling place where people with no direction seem to wash up, including the beautiful young Aya, who sings the haunting song from the preview and who has a distinctive scar or birthmark over half her face. As Hikage searches for Marou he discovers that something is brutally killing the villagers, although everybody he confronts about it denies that anything is happening. Soon he finds out that the villagers are sacrifices to a resurrected demon god of some sort. he kills the demon’s spider henchmen, releasing the villagers from their ensorcelled peace, and confronts the god himself, who of course turns out to be his childhood companion Marou.

Marou gets away and the villagers, released from their dreamlike state, all die. (They had been drawn to the village by their suicidal tendencies apparently.) Thus ends the first of the two episodes. The second episode catches up with Hikage two years later. He has been travelling all over Japan slaying Yoma, the demons being raised by Marou to overthrow the human race. He encounters a young ninja girl on a beach who is also coincidentally named Aya. The two of them strike out killing Yoma, encountering ghosts and whatnot until Hikage finally catches up with Marou and has his climactic confrontation.

Amanda is somewhat upset by the recursive nature of the coda to the film, what with the two Ayas, but I kind of enjoy that aspect of the movie as well. The entire thing has an otherworldly and mystical feel to it, so the strange sense of inevitability and rebirth works for me. It’s a ghost story, really. All the people in the first village are lost, perhaps lost in time even – so the Aya we meet there could perhaps be an echo of the Aya in the second half. Or perhaps Hikage is just fated to love a girl named Aya with a scar – who knows? The movie doesn’t present answers, and that’s just fine by me. It’s a movie about second chances and love and betrayal, and all of those themes fill it from start to end.

This was made in 1989 – around the time of Akira. As such I can’t help being impressed with the detailed animation throughout. It’s full of cool demons, ninjitsu and acrobatic fight scenes, and lots of gore and corpses. There’s a lot of imagery that is frankly disturbing and unsettling, which is exactly the mood that the film makers were going for I’m sure. The whole “childhood friends who have to fight to the death” might be a tired kind of trope in the anime world, but this is one of my favorite examples of it. My other favorite is a spoof in the short lived Here is Greenwood series.

July 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aladdin

June 27, 2011

Aladdin

I saw this for the first time on opening night at the Mann Chinese Theater in Hollywood. (Thank you Uncle Ken!) It was a spectacular experience with a whole chorus line performing songs from Beauty and the Beast before the feature and all the pomp and circumstance that a Hollywood premier should involve. (At least that’s my vague recollection… it might have been the Beauty and the Beast premier I’m remembering.)

What I do know is that I love this movie. It’s been a few years since I last watched it and I was surprised and relieved to find that it hasn’t really aged very much in the intervening time. Oh, the first verse of the opening song has been altered to make the movie less offensive, but other than that it’s the same movie I first saw in the theater. Even today I find that I enjoy the humor, the gorgeous animation and even the message of the movie.

In the same way that many Disney animated films are loosely based on fairy tales this movie is loosely based on tales from 1001 nights. A lovable rogue and thief on the streets of Aggrabah (a character familiar to us after having already reviewed two different versions of Thief of Bagdad) ends up in possession of a magic lamp containing an all-powerful Genie. Using his three wishes he attempts to gain the love of a princess, only to have the lamp stolen by a power-mad Vizier (is there any other kind) who wants to rule the world. That’s the rough outline. What makes the movie fun is what it does with that.

For one thing it has a fantastic and snappy collection of songs. This was the Alan Menkin and Tim Rice era of Disney musicals. Indeed there are many songs here that feel almost as though they are lifted directly from Little Mermaid in tone and spirit. I know that in Amanda’s book this is a down side because now she has songs from this movie caught in her brain, but I still enjoy them after all these years.

For another thing it has fantastic, fluid, beautiful animation throughout. I remember being very impressed at the time by some of the computer generated backgrounds such as during the magic carpet escape from the cave of wonders. It may look a little dated today, but at the time it was groundbreaking stuff.

I also enjoy the blatant messages in the plot. The notion that Aladdin should be honest about himself to win the heart of Princess Jasmine. The repeated insistence of Jasmine that she is not a prize to be won and deserves to make her own choice about whom she will marry. They’re simple morals but effective nonetheless, which is something Disney is fairly good at.

Of course all this pales in comparison with the one true reason to watch this movie. Two words: Robin Williams. This is his party, and everybody else is just invited along. His mile-a-minute riffs combined with the wild animation provided by teams of hard working animators results in a wonderful and mesmerizing experience. Amanda and I laughed at all the references that would sail right over the heads of children in the audience from Groucho Marx to Peter Lorre to Ed Sullivan. Then there are the bits that would have seemed topical at the time but are artifacts from a bygone era today, like his Arsenio Hall whooping. The truth is that no matter how many times I see this movie this shtick doesn’t get old. It’s Williams just doing his usual thing, albeit edited down for a G audience, and that’s just fun.

What can I say? This movie brings back happy memories. Memories of watching the film with my friend Rachel while she sang along. Memories of playing the classic SNES game based on the movie. (I think it has been re-released on virtual console for the Wii – I may have to buy it and play it again.) I know that for Amanda the result of watching this movie is that she wants us to own some Robin Williams stand-up routines, and I’m fine with that as well.

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

Ninja Scroll

June 25, 2011

Ninja Scroll

This review is going to make me feel old. I can sense it. It’s a “you kids today” review. You kids today with your handheld video games and your internets and your smart phones – you don’t know how lucky you are. When I was growing up in the days before VHS and cable television there was almost no anime available to sate my desire for strange, non-American animation that was not necessarily intended for children. Of course I obsessed over the few tantalising glimpses I was able to find on UHF TV hidden between the mind-numbing Saturday morning fare. Like the intriguing Battle of the Planets (severely edited for American audiences from Gatchaman) or Force Five (which was actually five different shows, a different one for each day of the week) or Robotech, which made no sense to me because I kept missing episodes – and because it was adapted from four different anime shows and re-dubbed into a single non-sensicle time line – or the awesome space soap opera that was Star Blazers. I remember how disappointed I’d be when I tuned in to Force Five and it wasn’t a Grandiser episode, for example.

Anyhow, my point is that I spent my youth intrigued and fascinated by these awesome cartoons which were so completely unlike anything else on TV. Only when I was in college in the early nineties did I start to find original anime in Japanese so I could enjoy it in its unadulterated form. At that time the big sensation of course was Akira, which had only come out a couple years prior and was far from as ubiquitous as it is today. Naturally I saw other classics like Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair. This movie, however, had not even come out yet. Years later when I was working at TLA and Amanda was in college in Pennsylvania anime was beginning to gain a more significant foothold in America. People who didn’t live entirely in dark rooms lit by computer screens had heard of it. It was at this time that Ninja Scroll became required viewing for anybody new to the genre. The reason why is clear as we watch this again tonight: this movie exemplifies everything awesome about Japanese animation that isn’t present in the pap created for American audiences.

What this movie is is a classic Japanese samurai movie but more magical and extreme. It takes place in feudal Japan, but includes unearthly magical powers. Three unlikely companions, each for reasons of their own, do battle with an upstart clan that is trying to oust the Tokugawa warlord that currently rules the country. Opposing them are the shadow clan, who have retained the help of eight legendary ninjas – the Devils of Kimon. Each of the eight Devils has his or her own deadly power. One can turn his skin to impervious stone and hurl a devastating spinning boomerang sword, one can fill corpses with explosives and re-animate them under her own control, one commands hordes of snakes, another hordes of wasps and so on. Leading the devils is the immortal warrior Gemma whom our hero Jubei had thought dead after they fought years ago while in the service of a different master.

The basic plot, of Jubei the wandering ronin teaming up with the last survivor of a ninja strike team sent by a local leader to investigate the doings of the Devils and a wise old manipulative government spy, doesn’t hold many surprises. It’s pretty much the story of the three of them reluctantly uniting and one by one defeating the unimaginably powerful foes they face, leading up to a climactic confrontation between Gemma and Jubei in a burning boat full of stolen gold bars. Kagero, the ninja woman whose kiss brings death because of her years as a poison taster for her clan, is bitter and cold. Jubei is your classic lone wolf, who has no interest in political conflicts like this but is manipulated by the government spy Dakuan. Even together they have no hope of defeating their supernatural foes, but they do battle with them nonetheless.

That’s not really the point of the movie though, at least not to my eyes. The point of the movie is to have a never-ending series of brutal action scenes that are the absolute pinnacle of extreme Japanese animation. This movie is absolutely packed with nudity, sex, severed limbs and geysers of blood. Right from the beginning when Kagero’s ninja team are destroyed by the giant stone-skinned Tessai, raining blood and body parts from the trees to the ground below you know exactly what this movie is all about. It’s a thrilling action adventure with a pulsing soundtrack and awesome fight scene after awesome fight scene. It also manages to encompass many of the tropes of the entire anime genre.

In the late nineties if you wanted to introduce somebody to anime as a genre there were three films they were required to watch: Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll. All three, for an American audience raised on Disney films, were shocking, awesome and left an indelible impression. Animation as a whole is not limited to childrens’ films about talking animals – it can be dark, violent, bloody, and sexy. It can be a whole lot more as well (as evidenced by the works of Hayao Miyazaki) but this movie is part of an important revelation for American audiences. I love it for that. And for being unbelievably cool too.

June 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curse of the Golden Flower

April 27, 2011

Curse of the Golden Flower

We’ve reviewed a couple of Yimou Zhang movies for the project by now so although I haven’t seen this before tonight I thought I knew what to expect tonight. I was expecting something lush and gorgeous with spectacular and well choreographed martial arts sequences. And I got that, but this movie is also so much that I had not expected. I had not expected an epic tragedy full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. I was not expecting something of this scope and grandeur. I could not have anticipated anything of this opulence and sheer scale – simply because there isn’t anything else like this out there. The closest I can come is Akira Kurosawa’s grand Shakespearean adaptation Ran, and that was constrained by the practical limitations of the time. Here, with the modern technology that made possible the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings series with apparently unlimited resources and a cast that appears to reach into the tens of thousands Zhang has made one of the most impossibly colossal movies of all time.

At the same time there is a surprisingly intimate story buried in this grand and extravagant movie. It’s a story about a family torn apart by secrets. We’re introduced to the imperial family slowly, getting a feel for each of them and the burdens they carry. At the center of the movie is the Empress – consort to the Emperor and mother to two of his sons. She has been having an affair with the Emperor’s other son, Wan, the eldest who was born of another Empress. Her elder son, Jai, is a steadfast and honest young man freshly returned from the frontier where he has been commanding the imperial armies. Then there’s the eager and youthful Yu, the youngest prince, who longs for glory of hos own and chafes at always being in the shadow of his elder siblings.

It would seem that the Emperor is aware of the Empress’ affair, and he has commanded his physician to start administering a gradual poison to the Empress in the cordial she is required by the Emperor to drink every two hours. With time, the physician tells his daughter Chan, the black mushroom being fed to the empress will destroy her mind. Meanwhile Chan has also been having an affair with Wan, who seems to be somewhat of an irresponsible layabout.

Things really get complicated when a mysterious woman in black shows up in the palace. She is the wife of the Imperial physician, mother of Chan, but the brand on her face hints at a darker past which she does not wish to initially divulge. She wants to help the Empress because she bears a grudge against the Emperor, and it is the root of that grudge that drives the film towards its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

To ground such a grand tragedy Zhang needed a stellar cast, and he clearly has that here. Chow Yun Fat portrays the Emperor. He’s so wonderfully imposing – a cold and aloof man isolated by his power. On the other side we have Li Gong as the Empress. She’s the primary character, and her quiet desperation and determination is almost palpable.

Add to this great story and great cast some astonishingly detailed production design, elaborate period costumes and an enormous apocalyptic battle and you have this movie. The sets are astonishing. In particular the halls of the palace with their glowing glass pillars are so detailed that it humbles you just to look at it. The vast courtyard of the imperial palace is apparently the largest movie set ever constructed in China and was big enough to dwarf the thousand professional soldiers involved in the battle scene there. (Their ranks were augmented by computer to fill the space.) The costumes too are intricate, detailed and ornate. Apparently they were also quite heavy and cumbersome.

This movie is an amazing accomplishment. It tells an interesting story of corruption, decadence and decay, and it tells it on a scale not often to be found even in the modern era of hundred million dollar blockbuster movies. I’d say that this is a movie that could not be made here in the United States. It’s so quintessentially Chinese. Not just in language and design, but in thought. Only in modern China, I think, could such a film exist. I’m glad it does exist too, because this movie makes the entire world a richer place.

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

Hero (2002)

April 13, 2011

Hero (2002)

I’m finding this movie difficult to review. It’s an amazing, gorgeous, poetic masterpiece of a film, and that right there could be everything I have to say about it, but it’s a bigger film than that. Not just larger in its epic scale with its cast of tens of thousands or its great wide gorgeous vistas, either. This is a movie with a grand, impressive central message that overshadows the action and drives the motivation for some of the main characters. It’s a message that I find myself somewhat uncomfortable with, and as a result I’m vaguely uncomfortable with the entire film, though I cannot deny its greatness.

This film takes place in ancient China, before it was even a single country when it was a collection of smaller warring nations. Jet Li is a nameless warrior who has, at the start of this film, somehow vanquished three deadly assassins who have been plaguing the lord of the Qin. How could this single unknown have bested Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, each of them masters of the martial arts who have defeated hundreds of Qin soldiers? The movie is told in flashback as Nameless relates his tale, and as he is questioned by the Qin lord it is slowly revealed that he is not what he at first appears to be. Ultimately Nameless has a fateful choice to make – one which will shape the very course of history.

This was the first of several spectacular and artistic wire-fu action films directed by Yimou Zhang, and probably the most ambitious. The stories that Nameless tells are full of grand emotions and epic swordplay. Within the context of this film it makes sense that these larger-than-life figures are able to defy gravity and the laws of physics. They are more than simple mortals – these almost mythical figures, and these stories being told are like tall tales about vanquishing titans of yore. Beyond that there’s the way the story unfolds. Nameless and the Qin lord take turns telling different versions of events, and so we get to see several key scenes replayed in different ways, which adds to the story-book mythical feel of the movie.

It has a strong episodic feel to it. Each distinct fight scene has its own aesthetic (something I recognise as a Yimou Zhang trademark) and the various re-tellings of events each have a different color palette, which helps keep them distinct but also heightens the unreality of the film. As we circle closer and closer in to the truth of the past and what has actually happened that led us to the point we are at now it becomes clear that this movie has a deeper message. I would almost say that it has an agenda.

I appreciate the message that there are greater forces in the world than personal gratification or individual vendetta. This movie has at its core conflicted characters having to deal with choices that will alter the course of entire nations. The English version even starts out with a block of text that sets the stage by asking us to think about those beliefs that people are willing to die for or kill for. What I can’t wrap my head around, and what ultimately makes me uncomfortable about the movie is that it promotes the notion of achieving peace through conquest. At least that’s my ultimate interpretation and that leaves me feeling slightly uneasy about the entire film.

I won’t deny that it is mesmerizing and gorgeous. Magical and mythical. It involves some fantastic visual story-telling and awe inspiring scenes with unprecedented scale. It is an epic movie and a gorgeous one. It involves many, many fantastically choreographed and filmed fight scenes. It has great acting and daring costume design. I just happen to disagree on a fundamental level with its core premise, which makes me a little sad. Because I’d really like to simply love this movie on every possible level instead of simply respecting it for its art and its composition.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 382 – Shrek the Third

Shrek the Third – March 17th, 2011

Oh dear. I had never seen this one before. I stopped with the second one and just never got around to this one and needless to say I haven’t seen the fourth. And I think that might have been a good move on my part. I don’t necessarily regret watching this tonight, because it did have some moments I enjoyed and some fun performances and I think perhaps this project is setting me up with some much lower expectations than I’d have otherwise. After all, I’ve sat through Death Proof and Punch Drunk Love. Nothing in this movie offended me. It’s just nowhere near as good as the first two.

To be honest, I’m kind of ticked off about that. Because the first two movies had that unfortunate pattern I mentioned where everyone dragged Fiona around like she couldn’t make her own decisions. And they followed the same basic pattern. And this one tried to break that pattern and I appreciate that. It just failed to do it well and wasted some prime awesome material on what ended up being an unfulfilling side plot. I can see what they were going for, but they missed the mark and it’s all the more disappointing for it.

So the basic plot is actually two plots. Shrek and Fiona are put in charge “temporarily” while the king is sick and when he dies he leaves Shrek as heir to the throne. Shrek is totally not up for that and decides to head off and find the only other royal male heir: Artie. Donkey and Puss go with him and they have a decidedly unexciting adventure that involves Eric Idle playing Merlin as Rincewind at Woodstock. Meanwhile, back at the castle, a disgruntled Prince Charming rallies all the villains at the Poison Apple Pub and takes over the kingdom, imprisoning the queen, Fiona and Fiona’s princess pals (and Dragon and the mutant donkey dragon babies). And well, the two plots do not go hand in hand. They are horribly unbalanced and have almost nothing to do with one another and that? Is a problem.

I’ve mentioned this before when movies do the split plot thing. When you take your core cast and split it in half and send one group off on one quest and the other on another, you’d better damn well make sure you’re making The Empire Strikes Back or The Lord of the Rings, because otherwise you just have a mess. It ends up feeling like you couldn’t figure out how to have one plot or the other fill an entire movie or happen with everyone around. Like you came up with one plot and said “Well, we need to get rid of Fiona for that to work,” or “Quick, send Shrek away so we can do this,” and then stuck the two together. And I’m saying this even though I kind of like the concept behind both plots.

On one hand, you’ve got Shrek, still angsting over being an ogre and all that. He’s off to find the true king and you might guess by my mentions of Merlin and Artie that we’re dealing with a King Arthur spoof here. And I could get behind the idea of an Arthurian spoof set in a medieval high school. If it was done well. But oh, the wasted opportunity! There’s not a single joke about Artie pulling a sword out of anything. Guinevere barely exists. Lancelot’s funny but once they leave the school you never see him again. And the school itself is all stereotypes and no real twists on them. There is so much that could have been done with the Arthurian stuff in the Shrek universe and they just walk away from it. It’s a throwaway joke.

Then the second plot follows Charming’s attempt to take over, which amounts to a stirring speech in the pub, one romp through the shops in down town Far Far Away, threatening Pinocchio, the Wolf, the Three Pigs and Gingy and then the climax. Again, so much material here! So many potential jokes and gags and laughs and moments and… No. Because we’re too busy hearing Shrek and Artie mope around Merlin’s love-in campfire retreat, talking about their feelings and bonding. So it’s not surprising that since the actual coup gets such short shrift, the princess underground rebellion gets even less time. And seriously? This would have been awesome to get more of. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Snow White, plus Fiona and her mother, sneaking through the castle catacombs? Breaking out of their prison tower themselves? Fighting back to save Shrek? Hell yes! Crank up the Heart and go to it, ladies! And then it’s over. Damn, that’s a let-down.

And then there’s the baby plot. I honestly think that while this movie does seem to be saying, on the surface, that babies are great, it’s actually saying you don’t ever ever want to have one. Fiona tells Shrek she’s pregnant just as he’s leaving to find Artie and this should be the unifying thread that somehow ties the two plots together. Unfortunately Shrek all but forgets about it aside from one absolutely horrifying and birth-control encouraging nightmare and once the princesses go on the run from Fiona’s interrupted baby shower it’s not mentioned in her plot either. Instead of being the core issue that brings you from one plot to the other, while the two expectant parents deal with the excitement and fear that I hear are pretty much the norm for expectant parents everywhere, it’s left by the wayside. Oh, it returns for far too much of the ending, which is basically a five minute montage of ogre babies and mutant donkey dragon babies making messes (and which continues into the credits), but it’s not actually in the movie’s storyline.

Sure, there are some fun lines and all. I do love the underground princess rebellion and I wish they’d gotten more time. I totally could have gotten behind a better and more clever Arthurian plot. I could even have dealt with Shrek moaning about his impending fatherhood. I like that they tried to do something different than the typical “Shrek has to save Fiona but oh, do they really belong together” plot. I just think they tried to do too much and ended up doing far too little. All the fantastic performances and moments from Donkey and Puss and the princess brigade can’t fix that.

March 17, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 370 – Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky – March 5th, 2011

I don’t know if I was quite in the right frame of mind to watch this tonight. Then again, I don’t know if it’s quite possible to ever be in the right frame of mind to watch this. It’s an oddity of a movie, full of bizarre elements that are never quite fleshed out. Oh, I like the concept and it’s very obviously a Gilliam movie. But it’s also very obviously an early Gilliam movie and well, it has some flaws. I might have had the same reaction to it regardless, but I do not recommend watching this while muzzy and headachey from a not-quite-long-enough nap. It doesn’t help in the least.

Ostensibly, this movie is based on the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. And yes, the poem does provide a basic framework. There is a fearsome beast and as Alice says, it’s clear somebody killed something. But, well, the poem doesn’t really have much in the way of a cohesive and coherent story, does it? That’s rather the point of it. It’s nonsense verse, presented in an imaginary world and read in a mirror. Therefore it’s perfect for Gilliam. Really, it’s the perfect sort of thing for the guy who did the animation for Monty Python. Bizarre imaginary creature? Nonsense? Bring it on! Unfortunately, I think he ended up with too many ideas and not enough editing.

The movie follows the story of Dennis, an apprentice cooper whose father renounces him because Dennis is obsessed with efficiency and bookkeeping, not his craft. Dennis loves a young lady named Griselda whose family make dried fish, but her family doesn’t think he’s worth much of anything. So off Dennis goes from their tiny village to a big city where the king lives. He gets in scrape after scrape, bumbling his way around the city. Meanwhile, the king has started a tournament to pick a champion who will go and defeat the beast that’s terrorizing the surrounding countryside. Eventually Dennis ends up acting as squire for the winning knight (the Red Herring Knight, who won a game of hide-and-seek) and defeating the monster himself after a bunch of fighting and another knight and some bandits. And back he goes to the city and he ends up marrying the princess because that’s how this sort of story is supposed to end. Except he wanted to marry Griselda and since he defeated the monster her family decided he was worth paying attention to. But who cares, cause they don’t end up together.

There’s a strange mix of serious and humorous here. The monster itself is rather frightening. It’s not really cartoonish and it leaves flayed corpses when it attacks. Gruesome flayed corpses. Michael Palin is sort of hard to see as anything but goofy and a few other parts are played purely for laughs. But other parts aren’t. Or they’re played as a sort of middle ground, where you know there’s some humor there but it’s not enough. There’s a lot of what feels like stuff that didn’t make it into the world Monty Python and the Holy Grail was set in. And then there’s some strange stuff that feels like it should have gotten more time and created a firmer and deeper story, but doesn’t. It’s like Gilliam was determined not to make a movie full of sketches, but couldn’t really manage to fully express what he wanted to do otherwise.

There’s an attempt at some deeper plot going on, with the king’s council trying to keep the citizens down by having the monster terrorize them, but well, it’s a weak attempt at best and not followed through well enough. It gets mentioned once, and then once again, and both mentions feel like minor conversations when clearly they’re not. The castle is in horrible disrepair, with towers falling down and the throne room full of debris and dust. It’s just sort of the way things are. No explanation. No sense of it meaning anything. In the grander scheme of the movie it feels like just another Gilliam sort of thing, not something with a point. And that’s sort of how a lot of the movie felt to me. Things were done. Sometimes funny, sometimes just odd. And when those things were done half the time they felt like they fit into the world and half the time they were just there. In the movie. Taking up screen time. It’s a muddled sort of movie, messy and uneven, but if you want to see Gilliam having some fun unfettered by coherence or expectation, this is the movie for it.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Jabberwocky

March 5, 2011

Jabberwocky

This is an odd artifact. When I think of the oeuvre of Terry Gilliam, which stretches from the Holy Grail to Dr. Parnassus, I tend to gloss over this movie. It has a lot of clearly Gilliamesque strangeness, and it’s fun to see what he does with almost zero budget. At the same time it has such a strange, almost experimental feel. It’s a clear stepping stone on the path to Gilliam’s distinctive style but it’s not quite there yet. It has all the madcap humor and irreverence of his Monty Python animations and it’s a clear attempt to find his feet in the world of live action film making – his first feature film if you don’t count Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which is more like a series of connected sketches.) Sadly it lacks the sense of awe and wonder that is more a part of his later films. It has all the zaniness and none of the magic.

Michael Palin stars as the hapless Dennis Cooper, a young cooper’s apprentice who sets out to find his fortune after his father dies. In the farcical medieval world of this movie the entire kingdom Dennis lives in is terrorised by a fearsome beast. With jaws that bite and claws that snatch. The manxome Jabberwocky has slain entire villages and driven all the peasant population to cower in and around the capital gates. A privileged few merchants and their guilds in the city have become rich off of the terror and confusion, but the general dirty masses want the beast done away with. So King Bruno the Questionable holds a tournament to find a champion. This champion will be tasked with killing the Jabberwocky and rewarded with half the kingdom and the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage.

Through the course of his misadventures Dennis battles starvation, petty guards, a jealous innkeeper, bandits, the Black Knight and ultimately the Jabberwocky itself. All unintentionally and with only a rotten potato and his memory of his beloved Griselda to sustain him. It’s a simple twisted fairy tale plot and in other hands it would probably have been mildly entertaining just for that. But just knowing the plot communicates nothing about the chaos that is this movie.

The entire tone of this movie screams ‘Gilliam.’ There’s the aesthetic of the shabby, collapsing, filthy kingdom for example. King Bruno’s castle is literally falling apart, filled with dust and falling plaster. The slightly heavy use of embarrassing bodily functions for humor also seems to have been Gilliam’s taste early on in his career. Throughout the film you catch hints of the Holy Grail and Time Bandits. In many ways I think of this as a student film. It’s his equivalent of THX 1138 or Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop. It’s an important part of the director’s work, but it’s a little rough around the edges.

One thing I do love about this movie, though, is the final confrontation with the beast itself. The Jabberwocky is a fantastic costume/puppet which, considering the minimal budget of the film, is pretty impressive. I mean, yes, it’s rubbery and can hardly move, but it’s also menacing and ferocious. Which is an accomplishment when you’re dealing with a complex rubber suit. It’s not my favorite representation of the Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s poem (that would be the Muppet version.) But it does deliver pretty well after all the POV shots used to show its viewpoint as it murders townsfolk. (Interestingly both of the people we actually witness killed by the beast are Python alums. First Terry Jones and than Gilliam himself.) The first time I saw this movie I wondered right up until the very end if we were going to see the creature at all, so maybe my fondness for it is because I had been afraid that budgetary restraints would preclude the monster itself from actually existing. It’s like the final reveal of the laughably inarticulate and rubbery shark in Jaws. If Jaws had been a farcical comedy and not a serious horror/adventure film.

I enjoy having this as part of my collection, although I’m not likely to watch it very frequently. It’s a part of Gilliam history and something any Gilliam fan should own. Just don’t call it a Monty Python film.

March 5, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

February 26, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

When my family got our first VCR – probably around Christmas 1983 or 1984 – we had very few movies for it. We had a couple dubbed movies provided by my uncles (chief among them being a copy of The Raiders of the Lost Arc which I watched incessantly) but practically no commercial videocasettes. We did have two classic silent movies though. I don’t know if they came from my dad or from his brothers, but I’m extremely grateful that they were there on Christmas day and I watched them both over and over again. One was Buster Keaton’s fantastic action adventure The General. The other was this outstanding and impressive opus.

I don’t have to tell you that a silent film, especially one that is over two hours long, could be a challenge for an eleven or twelve year old boy in the eighties to watch. The style, visual vocabulary, look and feel of these movies is vastly different from the cinema of today. But I’ve always been a sucker for a great fantasy, and this is a fairy story on a vast scale that even today, almost ninety years after it was made, cannot fail to impress.

What I remembered most about this movie before watching it tonight were the jaw dropping sets and production design. The sheer scale of the streets of Bagdad, the Caliph’s palace, and all the other locations featured here is astonishing. There’s one particular set, the enormous gates of the city, that simply boggles my mind. It’s not just the size of it, which dwarfs the actors, extras, donkeys, horses, camels and elephant that pass through it. It also has such a cool look, with four sliding panels that interlock when closed, that captures my imagination. If it were done today it would be in miniature or digitally, but back in 1924 somebody actually designed and manufactured that enormous gate.

Of course I also remembered Douglas Fairbanks and his exaggerated, almost bizarre acting. That is bizarre when looked at from the perspective of a child in the eighties with no prior exposure to early films. When this movie was made films were very much in their infancy, and the feel of them is not at all what we expect in a movie today. It’s not just the lack of audible dialog and the use of title cards – the entire art form was different. As Amanda and I watched this version tonight, which features an orchestral score, we kept commenting on hoe much ti felt like ballet. It’s the broad acting in pantomime that does it. Combined to an extent with the bold stage make-up. Because the complex visual vocabulary of modern film was still in its infancy here these movies have a much more deliberate, simple, feel to them. Maybe it’s the almost exclusive use of stationary cameras. It ends up giving the impression at times of sitting in an audience watching a stage performance. A very intimate performance where you get to stand right on the stage with the actors and the sets are impossibly huge and, in the case of this movie, with a plethora of clever special effects.

The story is presented in three distinct acts. The first act, by far my favorite, introduces us to the thief as he lives his carefree life on the streets of Bagdad. After pilfering a magic rope he uses it to scale the walls of the palace and falls in love with the princess. On her birthday, when suitors from all across the world gather to vie for her hand in marriage he disguises himself as a prince and infiltrates the palace in the hope of abducting her for himself. At this point he is a cad, a rogue, and completely self centered. He takes what he wants and damn the rest of the world. When he finally comes face to face with the princess however he is shocked to discover that just taking everything he wants doesn’t offer him true happiness. He realizes that he wants to earn the right to be worthy of the love of the princess rather than simply abducting her. At the close of the first act he admits his humble origins to her and allows himself to be captured and exiled.

The second act is a very linear quest. The princess, denied the chance to wed the thief, sends her remaining suitors out to find rare gifts for her father to decide which of them she will wed. Ahmed, the thief, goes to a local imam who sets him on the road to collect the most rare an wonderful gift, but first he must overcome a number of obstacles in his way. This should be the most magical part of the movie, because his adventures take him through a series of legendary and perilous realms. He must contend with a valley of flames, a fire breathing dragon, a tree beast in a sinister glen and a giant bat… any number of fairy tale encounters. It doesn’t quite work for me though. Each encounter is too brief to satisfy and it becomes almost monotonous to watch. The exception is when he goes to sea and dives deep under the ocean to retrieve a magic key. This is one my favorite parts of the movie, with a very cool other-worldly feel to it. It’s also the only episode where it feels like there is some peril and that things tie in to the plot of the rest of the movie as he becomes tempted by some sirens and resists them when he is reminded of the princess.

Ultimately Ahmed gets his magic gift – a box full of sand that makes his every wish come true – and starts back towards the princess. In the mean time one of the suitors, an evil Mongol prince, has not only poisoned the princess (so that he can use his gift – a magic golden apple – to bring her back from death’s door) but when that gambit failed he simply invaded and took over all of Bagdad.

The closing act, which feels extremely rushed in my opinion, involves the thief using the magic dust to re-take the city and save the princess. It doesn’t have any tension or emotional power to it, but it DOES involve some simply stupendous crowd scenes and a cast of thousands as he raises his army from the sand to overthrow the Mongol hordes.

Ultimately I have to admit that the fantasy of this version of the story doesn’t capture me like the 1940 version we watched yesterday. The first half of the film is exuberant and thrilling and filled with amazing sights, but the second half doesn’t gel for me and leaves me wanting more. None of that takes away from the spectacle of the movie though. It’s a film filled with astonishing special effects (for the time that it was made) and with sets and production design that is jaw dropping even by today’s standards. I love Douglas Fairbanks’ performance, and I enjoy visiting the fantasy world he has brought to life here.

After watching this movie this evening I went on Amazon and ordered the “complete” Metropolis. So there’s another classic silent film to look forward to. (I wonder if I will miss the Queen soundtrack from the version available for rent when I was growing up.)

February 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

February 25, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

My dad took me to see this in the theater. I think it must have been at the Coolidge Corner theater. This would have been some time in the early eighties, so this movie was already more then forty years old at this point, but it didn’t strike me as dated. It’s an epic tale of love, betrayal, and magic. Even today it retains its wonder for me.

Partially it’s the story telling. We come into the story in the middle, which I always love, and the blind beggar Ahmed tells us the tale of why his dog is so clever, why he’s blind, and why a sinister German in a turban wants him brought to a sleeping princess. Partially it’s the lush beautiful look of the movie. This was an early technicolor film and like Wizard of Oz one year earlier it has a vibrant, exciting palette. The vast lush sets for the Sultan’s palace, for example, are done in a lacquered red that fairly pops out of the screen. Partially it’s the rich, magical world – filled with genies, curses, wonder and true love.

Ahmed, you see, used to be the naive king of Bagdad, so pampered and isolated in his palace that he was unaware that his people hated him and longed for his death. He takes the advice of his Grand Vizier Jaffar (never a good idea) and goes out into the city dressed as a common man only to be arrested and thrown into prison for sedition. There he befriends a witty young thief named Abu who helps him escape from Jaffar’s clutches. The two of them set out to find adventure in the wide world and very soon Ahmed falls head over heels in love with a beautiful princess, only daughter of a dotty old Sultan with a love for mechanical wind up toys. Of course at this point he’s only a penniless beggar and thief himself, but that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him as well. Of course Jaffar, now the self styled king of Bagdad, shows up to ask the Sultan for the princesses hand in marriage, so she flees. Ahmed and Abu are captured by the Sultan’s guards and Jaffar lays a curse upon them. Ahmed will be blind, and Abu is transformed into a dog, until the day that Jaffar should have the princess in his arms.

All of that is just the back story.

In many ways this is a very straight forward love story with Ahmed and the princess (who would appear to have no name oddly enough according to the credits) mooning over each other and a lot of flowery language about their undying love, but it’s also a swashbuckling adventure story. There are songs, prophesies, and a lot of simple but effective special effects.

It also has a fun cast. Conrad Veidt is a fantastic nefarious bad guy. Sure, his strong German accent might seem a little odd in a fairy story about the middle east, but it also lends him a very sinister vibe. In many ways he reminded me of nothing so much as Bella Legosi when he was at his peak with his evil glare and inexplicable mannerisms. The romantic leads John Justin and June Duprez are inoffensive and pretty, which is I think what they are intended to be. Their love is more of a motivator for the adventure than anything believable, but it’s still fun to watch. The best part of the movie, though, is Sabu as the irascible Abu. His acting is perhaps a little overblown (look at his “surprised face”) but he imbues the movie with so much energy and charm that I don’t care at all. He gets all the best parts of the movie – rescuing the king, outsmarting the genie, stealing the all-seeing-eye, and ultimately saving the day through a deus-ex-machina encounter with an ancient race of wise men who treasure curiosity and heroism above all else.

I love the fantasy world on display here. I love the fairy tale tropes such as the very puss n’ boots way in which Abu tricks a mighty and enormous genie into granting him three wishes. I love the really quite well done giant spider. I even love the sappy romance at the heart of the movie and the friendship between the thief from the streets and the deposed king. I have always craved rich, beautiful fantasy worlds, and this completely blew me away in the theater more than twenty years ago. Then, as now, it captured my imagination and filled me with joy.

Tomorrow: Douglas Fairbanks.

February 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment