Monday, December 22, 2014

Grace's Pick: The Princess Bride (1987)

Hello again, jerks and jerkettes! Get used to seeing me around these parts, because apparently I’ve been drafted into the ranks as an official fourth member of this band of Merry Critics. Shall we sally forth then, what ho? Pip pip!

Brighid tasked us all with the choosing of a favorite film to review for the blog’s anniversary. She did not say, “Choose your favorite thought-provoking film,” or “Choose your favorite film most likely to earn you flannel-cred from the nearest gaggle of hipsters.” She said, “Choose your favorite film.” End stop. And my favorite film of all time and forever is The Princess Bride (1987) directed by Rob Reiner, because I am a female and shut up, this movie is genius!


Obligatory poster image is obligatory

 The Princess Bride stars Cary Elwes (which is in fact pronounced “El-wez”) in his first ever comedic role, having previously been a classically trained dramatic actor who was offered carte blanche to join the Royal Shakespeare Company by the director of the company himself. Playing the dashing and surprisingly snarky romantic lead, Westley, Elwes demonstrated phenomenal comedic timing and a dry delivery that managed to be at once charming and assholish, while also becoming an insane ambidextrous fencer along with costar Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) in his first film role that made any money. Beyond dialogue so memorable it will be quoted until the sun explodes, those swordfights are perhaps the thing people remember most about this movie, as all of them were meticulously and lovingly choreographed by the inimitable Bob Anderson. Wrapping all of this up with gorgeous set pieces, impressive location shots and a sympathetic score that might as well be its own character, there isn’t a whole lot in this film that someone could find complain-worthy. But more than just being clever, Princess Bride is smart. And that intelligence starts literally at the drawing board.


The two things this movie really has going for it are A). the author of the book that the film is based on also wrote the screenplay, and B). that author is William Goldman. Now obviously there are things that are different between the book and the movie, and I’m not going to get into all that because the book isn’t the point. The point is that William Goldman knows how to write a good screenplay. Where other book-to-movie adaptations fail in the clinch due to clunky exposition and mishandled priorities, Bride rises above all this because it’s free of the studio-bought screenwriter prat falling his way through a story he neither knows nor cares about, or an arrogant author-screenwriter trying to cram as much of his “vision” into the film regardless of its overall relevance to the plot. Goldman understood not only the central point of his own book but also the point Rob Reiner was trying to make and the way he was interpreting Goldman’s work for the purposes of film. In a move that may look like selling out, but to me demonstrates a realistic and self-effacing approach to one’s own art, Goldman trimmed away the embellishments from his novel to give Reiner the excellent screenplay that his movie called for and that we deserved to see. It’s that stroke of genius that makes me legitimately sad when I think of all the wasted potential in some of these book adaptations we keep seeing today.


To name a few...


What I always loved most about this film were the characters and witty banter, but as I’ve continued watching it through the years what I came to really respect about it was that tongue-in-cheek observation of the romantic story and all its inherent tropes. Upon watching it again for this review, I realized that Bride also presents us with a story about narratives in general and the way that, regardless of their original shape and direction, they can be edited by the “reader” to become something else entirely.


It starts by intermixing the classic storybook stereotypes (love inexplicably conquering all, the princess prepared to kill herself for this love, miracle potions that actually work) with the outright ludicrous (the impressive clergyman’s curious speech impediment, the hero’s physical impairment requiring the other characters to drag him around the climactic ending, the aggressive Jewishness of the mystical wizard character); a bit of funny satire on love stories and the absurdities they expect us to take at face-value. We are given a world in which True Love exists and happily ever afters are achievable and even with the good-natured holes being poked into that conceit, this is still the reality of the story. If we pay close attention, though, we start to realize that that is not precisely the story we are given.


The story we actually get is one that, while supposedly a romantic tale of true love, features very few actual scenes of love between the two romantic leads. These moments are glanced over or edited out by the Grandfather as he reads the book to his Grandson, because his Grandson is a whiny brat who doesn’t like “kissing books” and demands to get to the “good” or “cool” parts of the story. Even at the very start when the Grandfather is trying to convince the Grandson to the give the book a chance, he sells it to him as a story with, “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…” and then all the way at the end of the list he sneaks in, “…true love,” like he’s hoping the kid doesn’t notice. He knows what the Grandson wants to hear, he knows what will catch his attention, and the actual point of the story gets buried under all the exclamatory, adrenaline-packed parts like a can of Surge washing down the acrid taste of cough medicine.



The chocolate coating makes puberty go down easier


The essential nature of this story is altered in the telling, presenting us with not just a satire on tropes and genre but a dramatization of the changeability of narrative as a concept. This is a truth that we’re all familiar with when discussing oral traditions and the passing down of tales by word-of-mouth like an elaborate game of Telephone that spans generations, but Bride shows us how we continue to bring this subjective reality to our written works. Even words printed on physical paper in black ink mean nothing to the human instinct of hearing what we want to hear and remembering things the way we want to remember them.


The movie, however, subtly begins changing tacks on this phenomenon towards the end. While the Grandfather has been editing the story for the Grandson’s benefit and sparing him all the “kissing parts,” the one thing the Grandfather doesn’t alter is the end of the story. Despite the Grandson’s protests that Westley can’t be dead and that if he is, then someone needs to get around to killing Prince Humperdink, the Grandfather very calmly tells him that that isn’t the way it works: Prince Humperdink lives. He doesn’t win, as the Grandson immediately interprets this revelation, but he does live. That part never changes because there are certain things that simply cannot and should not be altered regardless of our feelings on the matter and nowhere is this made more evident than Westley’s infamously grim explanation of To the Pain.


Humperdink proclaims they duel “to the death,” which in this context serves as a narrative end that allows the victor to choose how the final outcome is interpreted; history is written by the victor, as they say, and all of Humperdink’s evil machinations will be forgotten once all his enemies are dead. Westley’s reality of To the Pain is no less permanent than death would be, but it leaves Humperdink disfigured and alive, with no other way but one to interpret this fate. He can tell his tale whatever way he wishes but when all is said and done Humperdink must always come back to the unalterable truth that he is alive only because his enemies found him too cowardly and pathetic to kill. However he chooses to remember this battle, that is something he won’t ever be able to deny.


Then of course there’s the real ending where the Grandson realizes he’s matured enough over the course of a single afternoon to handle the last romantic kiss between Westley and Buttercup, and he decides he wants to hear the story again the next day at which point we can assume he gets the unedited version. And we the audience realize that we got tricked into watching a movie about literary theory without even realizing it. But it taught us to build up an immunity to iocane powder in case we ever come up against a Sicilian or a murderous cabbie in a London community college* when death is on the line, so when you think about it, aren’t we the real winners?


Obviously both of the pills are poison, come on Sherlock!*



Next: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Get Psyched!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brighid's Pick: The Terminator (1984)

     James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) is a movie that has been a regular part of my viewing rotation since 1991, when I was on the cusp of age six. Usually I am incapable of having an objective opinion on things that entered my life before the age of ten, which is why I probably won’t ever review any of the original Star Wars films on this blog; they are just too deeply ingrained in me to have any sense of perspective. For whatever reason, that is not the case with this film. I’ve watched the film through many different lenses over the last couple of decades, but this time I’ve assessed the film as an 80s horror/slasher piece.


     How effective is Terminator as a slasher? If grouped with other films in that genre, it’s probably the best. By like, a lot. A Nightmare on Elm Street was held back by pedestrian acting, Hellraiser was stymied by a small budget, and most of the other iconic franchises were outright horrible or played purely for camp. Terminator is better funded, acted, paced, scored, and edited than those other films. Clive Barker and Wes Craven are delightful creators, but there’s a reason they are considered charming genre yarn-spinners while Terminator’s director has a license to do whatever the hell he wants.


     This is arguably the most derivative film in the Cameron canon. That statement seems to deflate my case considering the preceding paragraph, but let me explain: James Cameron is aping John Carpenter (Progenitor of the slasher genre!) here, and he does it to the hilt. I was very unsurprised when I learned that Cameron had worked in the special effects unit of Carpenter’s Escape From New York, because while this film lacks the snarky ur-libertarian message of Escape, it’s seasoned almost identically. Cameron makes great use of Brad Fiedel’s moody yet minimalist electronic score, peppered with gloriously ridiculous Pat Benatar-esque pop rock courtesy of Tané McClure. Even Cameron’s knight in shining armor, Kyle Reese, dovetails into the Carpenter ethos; before he’s on the screen for even five minutes we see him swiping pants from a homeless person, assaulting cops while appropriating their firearms, and plundering Nike Vandals from a department store. Somewhere, Snake Plissken is smiling.


Remain calm officer I'm the white hat in this film also have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?


     Terminator-as-slasher holds up when the plot structure is examined: We have a girl next door in Sarah Conner who is unaware of the hidden strength she possesses, and she’s being hunted by an absolutely unstoppable, utterly nightmarish behemoth played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her sexually aggressive roommate and boyfriend (who is apparently the most badass human being in the world for lasting several minutes in a barehanded brawl with a Terminator) are brutally killed by the monster. Conventional institutions either can’t perceive the monster, or they are utterly incapable of stopping him. In fact, the Terminator’s one-man assault on a police station is one of the more horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Whether one sees the police as protectors of civility or dispensers of arbitrary brutality, it is universally accepted that they are the ultimate expression of the Establishment’s authority. The Terminator trudges into a station with over thirty officers and murders every last one of them because he knows his quarry is in the building.


EX-TURE-MIN-EIGHT!


     The slasher theme is reinforced by the increasingly inhuman transformation the eponymous cyborg goes through. Some alterations are subtle such as the loss of eyebrows. Others are more macabre such as the infamous scene where an animatronic Arnold carves a shotgun pellet-damaged eye out to reveal a glimpse of the machine beneath. At the end of the movie the flesh is burned off the Terminator entirely, and the protagonists have to face a gleaming and murderous fire-hot metal endoskeleton.


Beauty is only skin deep. So is your blood.


     The Terminator is more than just a slasher flick, though. It cross-pollinates itself with other genre flavors, including post-apocalyptic sci-fi, hard boiled exploitation, and noir cyberpunk. The mounting fear of a horrific cyborg’s methodical slaughter is broken up by electrifying car chases which see Reese and the machine trade shotgun fire while barreling down city sidewalks in the middle of the night, headlights off. And after all the carnage and destruction, Sarah is granted a bittersweet ending. She is left with absolutely nothing of her old life, pregnant with a child she will have to raise on her own, and armed only with the knowledge that it’s up to her to train this unborn child to possibly win a war against extermination after the whole world burns. Damn right there’s a storm coming.


I hate Mondays.


     There’s a reason this film is in every $5 bin and on AMC every other weekend; it’s a classic, meat and potatoes thriller. While the 80s were saddled with middling to bad action films (many of them starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), Cameron is able to simultaneously elevate, compliment, and explode the slasher paradigm. If you like your melodramas lean, mean, and with heart, this is mandatory viewing. A.


This review was published in a format that may or may not contain Secret References to both Batman and Doctor Who. 


Next: The Princess Bride (1987). Get Psyched!











Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jerk Alert


Aloha, jerks.


    This October sees Cinema Chicanery turn a year old, and we have decided to celebrate in a decadent, luxurious manner. When I say decadent, I mean we are going to take a break from our regularly scheduled films to bring you selections from the vault representing some of our favorite go-to talkies. When I say luxurious, I mean in a manner not resembling prompt (or even regular), as there’s only so much blood I can squeeze from a stone when there are no paychecks involved.
So, we have an all-star line-up of feel-good films (and hyphens) for you. The menu is thus:


·         Evan’s Pick: Aliens (1986)
·         Scott’s Pick: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
·         Brighid’s Pick: The Terminator (1984)
·         Grace’s Pick: The Princess Bride (1987)


    Look for these soon, as we will begin rolling them out after Halloween. Also, be sure to swell the Jerk Army by telling your friends and family about our whiz-bang prose! They can follow us on both Facebook AND the Twitter. You know, if they have taste. 







Friday, September 12, 2014

Grace's Pick: Amélie (2001)

Grace: 

Hello my fellow cinephillic jerkazoids. My name is Grace, and you don’t know who I am. That’s okay, no need to fret. Just close your eyes and I promise everything will be fine. Ignore the sound of me sharpening knives. It’s not important. I can see we’re going to be very good friends.


I’m Brighid’s younger sister and I got called up from the Minor Leagues of my own self-aggrandizing blog to serve as pinch-hitter in this fine filmographic venture. I’m filling in for Evan, who would have been lead for this post and as such I was also tasked with picking the movie. Brighid has only herself to blame for what follows. We’re taking a pretty sharp left turn this time around and I’m sure it’ll be gag inducing for some but I had very short notice for this so everyone can deal with it. I’ve chosen the French romantic comedy Amélie (Les Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, he of Alien: Resurrection infamy. I’ve never personally seen that movie but I do know many who grimace at its mere mention, and after combing through Jeunet’s filmography it becomes obvious that he’s more of a self-stylized auteur and that the Alien debacle is, if anything, an aberration from his typical theme. Amélie is pretty atypical of a French film, as well, since it doesn’t end in existential crisis and greyscale contemplation of futility.


Original French tagline: “One day we’ll all be dead.”


Amélie is about a young French girl metamorphosing from wallflower to a 3-dimensional person in the early nineties in the village of Monmartre, near Paris. Right from the start we the viewers can guess what sort of story we’re in for, with the saturated colors, upbeat accordion music, and cheeky narration with absurdly specific details about nothing of significance (“A fly landed on the street in this neighborhood! Two wine glasses get blown around on a table and don’t break! An old man’s best friend is dead! Some lady gets pregnant! Guess who her baby will be!”). The overall effect is very stylistic, very “romantic” and very, very French.


Amélie grows up before our eyes in brief snatches of childhood that demonstrate her precocious whimsy and which take a turn for the bleak when a suicide jumper off a cathedral tower manages to land directly on Amélie’s mother, killing her instantly. Amélie grows up isolated from children her own age due to a misdiagnosed heart problem and left only to the distant, fish-like affections of her father until she moves out at the age of sixteen. Amélie slowly gathers around her a collection of neighborhood acquaintances, all possessed with some sort of personality quirk/defect, while Amélie proves herself to be as emotionally stunted as her own father, giving up on romantic relationships at the tender (and completely asinine) age of 23 after only a couple half-hearted attempts. Then Princess Diana dies and Amélie’s whole perspective shifts upon discovering a boy’s hidden treasure trove of toys long forgotten. After anonymously reuniting the now-middle-aged man with his lost memories, she goes on a crusade of helping people and bettering their lives, many times without them knowing it was her. Amélie’s journey of redeeming others gives her the courage to redeem herself and she finds the bravery to reach out for the man she falls in love with and find a bit of her own happiness. They have sex, the world is good, cue accordion and roll credits. Everyone take a cigarette break and meet back here for Act II.


So, was it cliché for you, too?


We good? Everyone back? Okay, this movie is clearly saccharine wish fulfillment without appearing to offer anything new or ground-breaking to counteract our imminent diabetic coma. I do not object, however I do feel that this is an oversimplification of what this movie does bring to the table. For starters it’s actually funny, which is more than I can say for a good 70% of romantic comedies I’ve been forced to see in the last four years. The control of the director over his vision is palpable from minute one and maintains itself until minute 121 of the total runtime. His thematic vision of people’s tendency to cling obsessively to the proverbial “good ole days,” to the exclusion of real relationships and new experiences in life may not be unheard of, but it is impressive how every single character fits so seamlessly into this mechanism without repeating themselves. Whether it’s the old man in Amélie’s apartment whose bones are brittle as glass and despite being a breathtaking artist, insists on only ever painting the same Renoir over and over; or the landlady who keeps her taxidermied dog and a portrait of her dead husband who had also cheated on her; or the crazy guy who stalks his waitress ex-girlfriend at the restaurant she and Amélie work at; or even Amélie’s own father and his ever-evolving shrine to her dead mother. She is surrounded by people who don’t know how to move on, and who don’t want to learn. The old Glass Man keeps a camera hooked up to his TV, but the only thing he films is the bank clock across the street so he never has to bother resetting a clock. Completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, his only past-times are reliving a single painting from the 1800’s and literally watching the time go by.


And go by it does. We hear of a “new star” being discovered and that neuroscientists have determined there are “more links in [the human] brain than atoms in the universe,” and that rich people will have their ashes shot out into space. The world is moving on and all these poor proles are getting left behind in the dust, forgotten. And people like the Glass Man or the stalker ex-boyfriend might be happy enough to bury themselves to the goings-on of their own insignificant microcosms, but what this movie really strikes home with is that there is one thing all of these blinkered individuals will inevitably have to acknowledge: death. Yes, this is a romantic comedy that actually courts the Grim Reaper.


What, did you think I was kidding about the French tagline?


While Lady Di’s death is not actually impactful to anyone but Amélie in the movie, it serves as a cultural touchstone for the universal idea of the impermanence of life. Being famous won’t save you, being important won’t save you, even being young won’t save you. Everyone dies and there’s no knowing when, so what the hell are you waiting for? I suppose what I most appreciated about this film was that in amidst the relentless optimism and standard romance-movie tropes (including the “the protagonist thinks the man of her dreams loves another! Drama! Doubt! Despair!” shtick) there’s this lingering specter of mortality hanging over all the characters. Amélie, having lost her mother at such a young age, feels that resonance with Lady Di’s death in a more poignant vein. She is capable of looking beyond her tiny little world to see the reality of inescapable mortality and decides to do something to help the people stuck wallowing in their own slop heap of unrealized dreams. Of course it wouldn’t be a “proper” movie if the heroine didn’t have some personal issue of her own that she’s incapable of overcoming without getting a boot up the ass, but hey, no one ever accused this film of being a masterpiece. 


It’s possible I’m reading too much into what is essentially a (well-constructed) romcom, but given I mostly hate romcoms, the fact that I don’t hate this one seems telling. While certainly not my favorite movie of all time, it is enjoyable and aesthetically delightful, with enough genuine humor and suggestions of meatier melancholy to cut that taste of sugary sentiment with some much needed coffee-dark bitterness. And to that I say Touché*.


*Translation: “Meh.”


Brighid:


Amélie is the kind of film that causes my friends to get pissed at me. An innocuous question like “What did you think of Amélie?” will bubble up at a gathering of mixed company, and I’ll be forced to come out of the closet as an unrepentant asshole, hell-bent on harshing everyone’s mellow. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has managed to distill, alloy, and then weaponize everything about Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, and Robert Zemeckis that makes me want to spill blood, and perpetuates it for over two fucking hours. Just to keep the hyperbole up, I’ll go so far as to say that this film is the ultimate expression of the West’s love affair with its own gilded and  feel-good navel-gazing bullshit that permeated everything  in the final days of the 20th century, before the anchors of Manhattan’s skyline fell and changed reality. Now that my irritation has been sufficiently globalized, let’s dig in!

While this film is basically a diluted Roald Dahl pastiche for adults, I will admit that it is very well made. It knows exactly what it wants to do, and pulls its distinctive vision off at every single turn.  In that respect, this film might qualify as a masterpiece (it’s certainly better than Jeunet’s previous effort, Alien: Resurrection). I would also be remiss if I didn’t admit that this film was genuinely funny at times.


Amélie, our allegedly adorable protagonist, is an introverted cypher with hipsterian bits of flair pinned onto her otherwise featureless character. She has no firm opinions, opting instead to bulge her eyes at things she likes or fall silent when people don’t understand her intermittent gibberish. She has an active imagination, is not overly materialistic, and is disinterested enough in the pleasures of sex for her American audience to feel safe while projecting themselves onto her stolid half-smile. She likes noticing things other people miss in movies! Her hobbies include thrusting her hands into basketfuls of dry beans and enacting petty acts of revenge in the spirit of Zorro! Princess Di’s death totally upset her. Fourteen years after her movie takes place, I bet she’s probably reading Paper magazine and listening to the Pizza Underground.*


Amélie are happy!

The film’s structure is fairly loose, resembling a collection of fables anchored together by a unifying protagonist and the unrelenting deployment of dramatic irony. Each segment of the film represents a sort of obstacle course for our heroine, with a defined goal at the end. Supporting characters are often little more than prettily painted cardboard, literally defined by some off-hand quirk of personality. These human set pieces sprout up like weeds to augment the vaulting dome of whimsy the film so laboriously attempts to insist upon, but true to their nature, have nothing to offer when required to exist beyond the sight of Amélie’s frivolously glazed stare.


I’ll be honest: the only enjoyment I was really able to wring out of this film was imagining a Futurama parody of it called Zoidéberge. On the plus side, this is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, exactly how to do it, and hits every technical note with graceful precision. That drags this film’s overall grade up high enough to be considered passing. C



*Things you probably haven’t heard of


Amélie are sad!


Scott:


Amélie spent at least ten years on my “to watch” list (also known as cinematic purgatory). Many movies have been added to that list, and on occasion, many have been removed from that list, studied and carefully imbibed. But never Amélie. She’s ever the bridesmaid, never the bride. Thanks to our guest columnist, this French flick has seen its number finally punched, forcing me to dive into a cross-cultural phenomenon that’s been recommended to me by countless friends – high school classmates, college buds, and random strangers I’ve shared brews with at the bar.


Considering how long I’ve dodged this movie, I’ll be upfront and blunt. I didn’t like it. Interlaced within the beauty of this film, lingering in those vibrant hues, most often of greens and yellows, I found a dark secret this movie’s harbored, an arch-villain lying in wait who ran afoul of my sensibilities.


And who is this nefarious rogue? Who is this diabolical knave who ruined the entire movie for me? “It’s your narrator, Amélie. Something has got to be done about your narrator.”*


For a film as beautifully shot as Amélie, for a film as bright and imaginative, as quirky and charismatic as this one, it didn’t need a chatterbox trying to ensnare the reins on this piece of cinematic art. Every time that authorial douche-bag spoke, I cringed. He ruined jokes. He corralled the pocket universe director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was creating, stifling exploration of the scenery and the backdrop.  Freedom of interpretation was locked away and imprisoned, so that the narrator could paint the picture he wanted to gloss over this unique portrait. What could have been a triumph for cinema had the shackles of literary narration bound to it, sinking the art of the medium into the abyss.


In all honesty, I’ll admit that I found parts of this movie funny, too. Every gag I laughed at, I noticed, did not have an authorial voice overrunning the scene. In those few, brief moments, it was just me and Amélie – two against the world. And it was cute. Magical. Enchanting.


And then that guy in the audio track started yapping. What an asshole.


*Secret Back to the Future II reference


 Mais il est mon narrateur !



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Brighid's Pick: American Pop (1981)

Brighid:

American Pop is a bit of an odd duck. A film by noted animator Ralph Bakshi, it was hammered out while Bakshi was recovering from the (much deserved) ass whipping his awful Lord of the Rings adaption received. The film was rotoscoped, meaning animation was traced over footage that was shot in live action, giving a jarring and distinctive feel to the film, although it is not without its drawbacks.


This film’s tone is downright Eisnerian; the plot of successive generations of a Russian Jewish family and how they interacted with the zeitgeist of their era could have been plucked right out of A Contract With God. We are given a line of male protagonists who all must grapple with a societal wall between them and their passion. In the beginning, we have a rabbi cut down by a Cossack pogrom because he refused to interrupt his prayer to flee. After this, each generation is represented by a young man who attempts to realize his dreams as a musical performer or singer. The world is not kind to these men, however. The rabbi’s son, Zalmie Belinsky, is orphaned when his mother dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and a stray bullet during the Great War ruins his singing voice, derailing his livelihood. He attempts to navigate and manage a singing career for the woman he loves, but he ends up having more in common with Meyer Lansky than Irving Berlin. His son, Benny, is a musical prodigy. Despite his immense talent, depression and apathy swallowed him up as a child after a mob hit on his father ends up causing his mother’s death instead. He is struck down by a German soldier during the second World War. Benny’s orphan, Tony, is a ferociously independent young man who cut his teeth on the Beat scene, but his westward quest for authenticity and acceptance is ground into nothing by heroin. Finally, Tony’s bastard Pete takes the reigns of the narrative. Unlike his predecessors, Pete is too sharp, mean, and dedicated to be waylaid by violence, addiction, or the hegemonic wishes of others. Through Pete, the entire line of Belinsky men are redeemed and brought to triumph as the final protagonist basks in the glory of pop music arête.


While the Belinsky journey is a rewarding story, the film is not without its problems. The opening credits sequence is belabored, attempting a Leone/Coppola feel, but coming off more like Don Bluth’s take on the introduction sequence to Cheers. The rotoscoping is problematic too. I don’t want to get into a debate over how “authentic” it is or isn’t to trace animation over something that’s already been shot with live actors, but it robs animation of the emotional intimacy and nuance that drawings are turned to for in the first place. There’s nothing particularly subtle about the technique, which causes Bakshi to introduce long, pregnant pauses to help slow the narrative and let the impact of a scene sink in. It works to great effect at first, but he keeps reaching back for the same trick ad nauseam, diminishing the impact. The worst moment of the film is, unfortunately, what should have been the best: When Pete is finally given the opportunity to unleash the music that’s been brewing inside him, the track selection Bakshi chooses is…’Night Moves’ by Bob Seger. I understand Seger’s star burned a bit brighter in 1981. I didn’t expect Pete to start cranking out ‘Shoot Out The Lights’ by Diamond Head (Which would have been awesome, by the way). But…really?


Ok.


I guess.


            Distracting animation techniques aside, there is a lot of heart to this film. The dialogue and its delivery is stellar, owing a lot to the fact that actors played out their scenes live as opposed to speaking their parts into a can; Americans as a whole aren’t particularly good at dramatic voice acting, and the idea that animation is a children-only affair keeps the more nuanced performances at bay. One aspect of the film I absolutely loved was Bakshi’s refusal to sugar coat the Long 60s that Tony endures. The devil-may-care, free love ethos espoused by nearly everyone isn’t critiqued directly, but is given just enough rope to hang itself, as the warm colors and mildly pleasant folk music descend into harsher sounds and palettes as the main protagonists start to succumb to their junk habits. After each character passes the baton off to the next Belinsky, there are well done musical montages that give the viewer a crash course in what cultural currency the next lead is dealing with, and aside from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing animation, they all more or less nail the flavor they are attempting to capture. All in all, I’d say this was a damn good film, and one I will happily return to again. B+


Zalmie traded crooning for whiskey bootlegging and murder 


Evan:

My favorite moment in American Pop comes when a drug-addicted protagonist reunites with his old hippie band and their desperate trainwreck of a lead singer. “I’m nothing without you!” the drunken Frankie shrieks as she melts into our guy Tony’s arms. As she does this, an unforgettable Grinch-like smile spreads across Tony’s rotoscoped face while the opening notes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” begin to play. We’re then treated to a good minute of an animated Hendrix tromping around onstage while he strums on his guitar. I forget what happens next but I’m sure it involves some kind of weird visual collage of stock footage and funky animated dancers. 

           
There’s something infectious about the way this film packs so much expression into moments like these. In doing so, American Pop successfully rebrands several classic pop songs, ranging from Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” (a song I know I’m supposed to hate but don’t, so leave me alone music snobs—and that includes you, director Ralph Bakshi).


The excellent voice acting lends additional nuance to the characters—the one exception being Ron Thompson. Thompson voices two of the film’s four patrilineally related protagonists, and although he does a great job with the voice of the festering addict Tony, he chokes when it comes to Pete, the badass, jive-talkin’ coke dealer who, incidentally, sounds nothing like the aforementioned Seger. This might be less his fault and more the fault of the script and/or director, but regardless, it’s the one vocal performance in this otherwise strangely earnest film that doesn’t strike me as genuine.




 Poimanately puckahed!


Scott:

American Pop is a complicated piece of animation that has me torn, stuck between two opposing thoughts fighting it out in a no-holds-barred rotoscoped high school Battle of the Bands in the back of my mind. On the one hand, the subtext and idea behind the film is notable. What Ralph Bakshi birthed to the world is a 96-minute music video that tries to layer meaning and background to the ever-changing face of American pop music. In chronicling several generations of a family, beginning with the flight of Russian Jews from the Czar and ending with the dawn of the 80’s, Bakshi uses the experiences of each generation in an attempt to catalogue what is going on in each era’s music. The effort should be applauded, as the concept and the way the music clashes with the violent history each generation of this family, whether it’s one of the two World Wars, prohibition era gangster activity, or so forth, endures builds an interesting implication as to why the popular music of each era took the form it did. Of course, there’s no clear interpretation, so what one infers another could strongly argue against.


On the other hand, with each step forward the earlier parts of American Pop advances in chronicling and boiling down this history, the latter half of the film unravels. History slows down as we reach the 60’s and 70’s. The delinquent lineage of this film is given much more screen time, specifically with the character of Tony, as he travels any way he can out West to submerge himself in dreary, acid-fueled songs and a relationship that ultimately ends in the fatal overdose of a lover. It’s in this sequence my teeth clenched. What began as an interesting way to construct a history book morphed into the hollow shell of an old Ralph Bakshi cult classic – Fritz the Cat – without the drug-addled cartoon animal present. That said, once Tony bows himself out from the screen, the film picks up for its rock-serenading finale.


All in all, American Pop is one of those films that should be watched at least once, at least to give credit where it’s deserved. This film is an experiment, and it’s a one-of-a-kind experience at that. Ralph Bakshi deserves a firm handshake and nods of appreciation for the attempt, even if, some of us, would argue that this experiment churned out an abomination. If you’re just coming for the music though, there’s plenty of good tunes to be had. My personal favorite incorporation was Sam Cooke. Bakshi fans will also note that his unique animation style is chugging along at full power.



 Hell is for children

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Scott's Pick: Invasion of Astro Monster (1965)



The hybrid child of Toho (Japan) and UPA (United States), Invasion of Astro Monster is a Godzilla movie that has, quite literally, everything. Romantic subplot, star-crossed lovers, hive-minded aliens bent on conquering Earth, science mumbo jumbo, dancing, space exploration, American and Japanese actors for respective international audiences, New Age banter, non-fascist global unity, giant monsters socking each other – it’s all there.

In Invasion of Astro Monster, Director Ishiro Honda, the man who can be credited as helping to invent Godzilla, weaves a tale indicative of the science fiction boom of the times. A new planet, Planet X, is discovered behind Jupiter. The denizens of this planet are under attack from a beast they dub Monster Zero (King Ghidorah), the villainous space dragon from Godzilla’s previous bout in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Planet X pleads with the people of Earth to lend them Godzilla and Rodan, so that these monsters may fight and end Monster Zero’s reign of terror.

As the plot unfolds, astronauts Glenn (played by Nick Adams) and Fuji (played by Akira Takarada) sense dirty pool, leading them to discover that the aliens of Planet X are really after control of Godzilla and Rodan, utilizing the same magnetic wave technology they currently wield to control Monster Zero. It’s a ruse all along, and our heroes are against the clock to free the monsters and halt the machine-centric, hive-minded denizens of Planet X from conquering Earth. Insert a couple romantic subplots, some whiz-bang radio frequency that kills the aliens, and some scenic destruction, and voila! We get a film that accomplishes two things.

One – it’s this cohesive blending of two different styles of science fiction/fantasy filmmaking at the time, a bridging between traditional Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) flicks and good old American exceptionalism.

Two – The Godzilla franchise was forever altered. Humanoid aliens were introduced, and from this point, they would become a frequent outside threat, compelled to conquer Earth with their own armadas of monsters at every turn. And this film, Invasion of Astro Monster, was the first Godzilla flick to truly define this franchise staple. What children know and love about Godzilla across the globe, what they dream about, stemmed from this production.

However, what’s really interesting to think about is this – Godzilla was born out of response to the devastation of nuclear weapons in World War II. This monster was an external threat embodying the onslaught of destruction wrought by the United States less than ten years before its original silver screen appearance in 1954. In a nutshell, the original film was a coping mechanism, a way to try and comprehend the horrors and atrocities of such devastation. And yet, 11 years after 1954’s Gojira, Invasion of Astro Monster enters the franchise – a joint production of two studios across the Pacific working together and re-imagining where Godzilla could go.


Is this movie cheesy? Yes. Is this movie filled with all the cliché science fiction tropes of the era? You bet. But could it represent something greater than its parts? Could it symbolize the union of two nations at war with each other not some 20 years before? Could it represent the quest for building marketable dreams together, dreams that could enrapture the populations of more than one nation?

After all, at their franchise core, Godzilla movies are the nostalgic dreams of the future. They’re the realms of childhood captured on film, the sweeping HO scale landscapes of a world where dull humans strive to advance the cause of humanity, where poorly dressed enemies are the gray-scaled outsiders we can sniff out from a mile away. In Godzilla films, there are higher powers – entities that oversee our actions. If we’re productive, they aid us in bettering the world. If we’re destructive, these higher powers smack us down, grinding our faces into the collective muck with one mighty stomp. But if we’re good, they give us hope. If we’re good, they give us unity.

Consider this – many of the mega Hollywood productions are ever shifting to reach outside the U.S. demographic. While this practice has never been uncommon, Summer blockbusters are no longer content with appealing solely to American audiences – they’re after the world. These gargantuan pictures exist to share a modern-day dream with a variety of people across a variety of languages and barriers. Mega movies like Iron Man 3 film multiple scenes and sequences, not all of which are intended for one audience. In China, for example, Iron Man 3 featured a separate character written into the plot to engage Chinese audiences. This character did not appear in the U.S. release.  Something similar will probably be said of the most recent Godzilla film, an American production with Toho’s blessing.


The question remains, will this new Godzilla continue the precedent defined by movies like Invasion of Astro Monster?
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BRIGHID: I’ve always felt daikaiju (‘big strange creature’) films are to cinema what M&Ms are to food; utterly insubstantial and probably not all that good for you, but colorful, sugary excitement that’s fun to binge on every now and then. While some films in this genre have gained cultural importance or demand political consideration, Invasion of Astro Monster is not one of them. In a way that’s refreshing, as I won’t get mired in arcane subtextual implications concerning Japan’s relation to the western military industrial complex or weird discussions about how neoliberalism affects increasingly global markets. On the other hand, I’m left without a whole hell of a lot to say about this movie.

It’s very tempting to go full-on snark here, asking questions like “Why in God’s name is Nick Adams in this film, and why is he doing those things he’s doing?!” But the “Inserted For Your American Viewing Pleasure” archetype has already been ripped to pieces, and I don’t want to give the impression that I have anything in common with Pauline Kael*.

One of the most charming aspects of this kind of entertainment is the miniature set pieces. It would still be a few years before models and cameras were good enough to successfully pull off this kind of diminutive scenery, but the idea behind the (oft flawed) execution is way rad. The coolest shot in the whole film is around 57:30, when we see the silly rocket ship touching down on a landing pad in the distance. The set is a miniature mock-up of a military base, and out of the foreground come wind-up cars, hurtling down the road to pick up the freshly returned astronauts. It’s an easy shot to miss in a film filled with absurd space invaders and the horrifying undulations of King Ghidorah’s necks, but it was a serendipitous little snippet that reminded me of something one would expect from the original (unspoiled) Star Wars trilogy.

This was not a good film by any definition I’m willing to run with, and it tested my patience enough to make me hesitate declaring it a fun film. Preexisting fans of the genre will probably find stuff to like here, as this is one of those Godzilla films that blurs the lines between making the big guy a hero or a villain. For the casual viewer, I’d recommend screening it on silent while you don a bowling shirt and crank a Man Or Astro-Man? album during one of your trashy-ironic 1960’s parties. C-

*Aside from the fact that we are both very dead inside

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EVAN:
Despite being a total nerd, I never got into the Godzilla franchise while growing up. The movies always looked cheap to me, the portions of the films I did see never held my attention, and I could never tell if they were supposed to be scary or funny or… something.

I’m grateful this blog entry finally forced me to watch my first Godzilla movie in its entirety. However, that’s about all I appreciated about this experience. I will give Godzilla: Invasion of Astro-Monster credit for subverting my admittedly low expectations about its plot, but overall I still found it to be pretty terrible. Yeah, it looks cheap, but that wasn’t my issue; I have no problem with campy sci-fi or campy monster movies, as long as I’m given a reason to care. My problems with it have to do more with its muddled tone and the way its characters, including its monsters, behave.

For one, is that a victory dance Godzilla performs after he and Rodan defeat King Ghidorah on the moon? Does Godzilla always do that? Is this creature supposed to be scary? Two, why are the people of Earth so stupid as to surrender their only defense against King Ghidorah based purely on the word of alien invaders? It seems pretty reckless to stake the entire fate of everyone on Earth on nothing more than shrugging your shoulders and saying, “eh, they seem like nice enough guys.” It’s not like the aliens’ plan is that great, either; they just get lucky the earthlings are so gullible.

I like that Godzilla: Invasion of Astro-Monster isn’t completely straightforward, but I can’t find much else to like in this turd. It feels like one of those bad episodes of The Twilight Zone, only expanded to feature length to exacerbate the shame you feel for wasting your time by watching it. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Evan's Pick: Primer

EVAN: 

I had an ulterior motive for selecting Primer. I saw this movie once, about ten years ago, after a bunch of sci-fi enthusiasts recommended it. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t its low-budget nature that bothered me, it’s that I found it boring and confusing. I sensed it contained some time-travel mystery I was supposed to unravel, but didn’t care enough about what I had just seen to want to piece it all together.

Unfortunately, some movies you write off as bad or overrated don’t just disappear from the zeitgeist if you ignore them—some do, but not all, meaning turds like The Boondock Saints will always be with us. Primer was one of those movies I hoped would go away, but didn’t. People kept mentioning it in the context of great sci-fi movies, but I think what firmly cemented it in the canon, at least in my mind, was Chuck Klosterman’s essay in Eating the Dinosaur declaring Primer the finest time-travel movie he’s ever seen. “Dammit,” I thought as I read that sentence. “Now I have to give it another chance.” I decided I would eventually have to give dullsville Primer another viewing to see what I’d missed.

Like with most things in my life, though, I put this off for as long as possible, much like my intention to someday read One Hundred Years of Solitude; I’d get to it eventually, when the time was right. However, after seeing Primer-director Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color last year, I realized there was probably something to this guy (you can read my review of Upstream Color here).

So, Primer. [You’ll have to excuse me for having my perspective on this movie unintentionally colored by Klosterman’s insightful essay and subsequent things I’ve heard Carruth say about it. I’ll try my darndest not to plagiarize.]

Primer is a time-travel movie about a couple of white-collar engineers (played by director Shane Carruth and David Sullivan) who inadvertently invent a time-travel device in their garage. Much like the discovery of penicillin, their invention is accidental, mysterious and a little bit mind-blowing, even if its uses initially seem limited. This isn’t an omnipotent time-travel machine like the Delorean or the T.A.R.D.I.S. (I’ve never actually seen Doctor Who but I’m pretty sure that’s what the T.A.R.D.I.S. is); it can only accelerate time for the objects inside of it or send them back to the moment at which the machine was turned on. When they build a prototype large enough to fit a person, they can only travel back to the beginning of the day they powered on the machine, so there’s no chance of the film exploring trite time-travel dilemmas like “would you go back and kill Hitler?” and all that. However, even with the machine’s limited use, there’s still plenty of ideas to explore­—and room for chaos to flourish.

Although they begin by cautiously using the machine to do benign things like make money on the stock market, their carefully orchestrated rules of cautious use quickly break down. There are only two people with access to this machine, and even though they’re friends, they have issues trusting each other not to abuse it. Even more interesting, though, is that they can’t even trust themselves, either. Because they are essentially creating a situation in which multiple copies of themselves exist concurrently, each man has to trust that his temporally displaced counterpart wouldn’t do anything that he wouldn’t do—something that is essentially unknowable, as the film quickly makes clear. And this is where the film gets interesting: even if you think you know yourself and how you would act, could you really trust that an exact copy of yourself would behave in the same way? What if he were in a situation you hadn’t foreseen—how do you know what he would do and what he would say?

There’s a telling scene in the middle of the movie where the two engineers think they spot one of their potential investors spying on them. Even though they had seen this same clean-shaven guy earlier that day, he appears to have several days’ growth of facial hair. After they chase him down, they confront each other and ask who told him about the machine. It’s not so much them interrogating each other, though, as it is interrogating themselves, asking if there’s even a possibility that they would have considered sharing the secret of their invention machine with an investor. That’s the rub here, because if that possibility exists, then in a world where infinite possibilities are given the chance to play out, anything can happen—you or one of your duplicates could have taken any action you would’ve had even the most remote chance of taking.

Because Primer quickly expands from a tight time-travel movie into one that’s unimaginably infinite, it’s easy to get frustrated, and this is where the movie lost me the first time I watched it. I stopped trying to understand what was happening and just gave up. In revisiting it, though, that almost seems to be the point: you can’t keep track of what’s happening. The situation is inherently uncontrollable. The minor outbreak quickly becomes an epidemic.

And to think, Primer sparks all of these interesting ideas from a simple premise and a budget of $7,000.

Now, this isn’t to say the film is perfect, because it isn’t. Despite not letting myself get tripped up over the questions of which version of which character was doing what, I honestly don’t understand what’s happening with the plot near the end of the film. There’s some vague storyline about a shooting at a party, the depiction of which I feel Carruth botched. Worse, this mangled subplot surprisingly turns out to be the climax of the movie, segueing right into an equally rushed and confusing cliffhanger ending. Depictions of chaos aside, I would’ve liked a little bit more clarity in the finale. I think this was more a problem of bad filmmaking than artistic ambiguity.

Still, despite its weak finale, I found that I enjoyed Primer much more this time around. Sort of like that car crash scene in Fight Club, the movie works best when you just let go of the steering wheel. Whereas on my first viewing I didn’t care enough to piece it together, when I finished it this time, I actually had the desire to re-watch the film it so I could better understand its plot. So, I concede that the zeitgeist was right about this one: Primer belongs in the canon. If only I could go back and tell my younger self how to better appreciate it.


 Above: One shot of many depicting Sullivan and Carruth talking while in their work clothes. 



BRIGHID:

This is possibly the most inaccessible film I’ve watched outside of the opaque madness that is David Lynch’s Eraserhead. I’m not sure if a background in physics or coding would have afforded me greater insight, but we are kept in the dark as to who anyone is or what in the hell is going on for nearly the first twenty minutes —almost the entire first quarter of the film. While there are some films that double back to infuse meaning on the context-less opening sequence(s), this is not really the case here, and that’s a red flag for me.

After a while, it becomes clear that two corporate drones in the tech sector are working on a garage project dealing with energy transference, or gravitational effects on matter, or…something. After a lot of permutations and long division, we have two schlubs in possession of a time travel device. They begin to do stuff with it, like snag stock market fluctuations from the future, and enact adolescent male power fantasies at house parties.

What I dislike most about the film is that it wants to be hard science fiction; the rules of the techno-magic and long-winded explanations over how shit works takes precedence over things like characterization and plot. I will give the film makers credit for amping up the plausibility factor of the time displacement rigs and prototypes, as they look cobbled together from existing technology. The magic trick that the shallow plot and near-arcless characters are built around is first introduced as an unaccounted for side effect as opposed to a “eureka!” moment. But who are these people? Why do we care? These are fundamental questions for any piece of fiction, and they go largely unanswered here, in favor of John Byrne-flavored paradox porn.

I can appreciate a film that doesn’t beat me over the head with a theme or spell everything out, but I also don’t want to be pressed into service to provide my own character profiles and sense of closure; I’d rather just go pen my own story at that point, thank you very much. We do get served some Glass Key–style fraternal friendship fraying (Alliteration Alert!), but was there any warmth or trust between these two idjits for us to mourn over in the first place? This film lacks narrative ambition, the stylistic flourishes to the scene editing made me wonder if my copy of the film was corrupted, and everything plays out in claustrophobic (but not stylishly so) scenes deprived of atmosphere. Having said all this, I have to award any independent film endeavor bonus points for refusing to include a road trip and awful college radio tracks. This was a fine skeleton of a film, but I would have preferred if some flesh had been packed on to provide a greater purpose. C


 
Above: The aforementioned fraternal friendship fraying of Sullivan (left) and Carruth (right). 



SCOTT:

At its core, Primer is a cool concept, I suppose. It’s also a neat film in that it had next to nothing for a budget, and the filmmakers managed to patch something together, which is an admirable feat. Unfortunately, that something is a Frankenstein’s monster hodge-podge of soldered computer components these filmmakers all lifted from work at Geek Squad. That’s not a joke.

Primer has no characters. It has no real plot. What it does have is scientific physics-babble – the kind of discussions that are a real labor of love amongst a very small group of people. For the people who get it, I imagine this is a very charming movie. It’s something to ponder when the end credits roll. It’s something to pontificate inquisitively in the shower the following morning, annoying the missus who happens to be brushing her teeth in the nearby sink with jargon neither she, nor ninety-some-odd percent of the population, will understand.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those ninety-some-odd percent, so when the end credits scrolled across the screen, I was left thinking about how to take the concept for this movie, time travel and the creation of duplicates, and make it better. The result? I came up with a movie I call ‘Primer Ib’. It’s about these guys who stumble on time travel technology that they use to create a sustainable source of beef. In this inspired spin-off, our heroes keep sending a cow back in time, harvesting the duplicate created in the present, so they can keep their stock of beef products up to snuff at the restaurant they run in town. Things take a turn for the worse when a fly accidentally gets trapped in the time machine with the cow.

To be fair, however, I didn’t dislike Primer. I viewed it the way I view an inside joke amongst a group of enthusiastic friends. I just… had to be there. For physics fans, I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie turned out to be a real hit. One can tell, just from watching the scenes where our “protagonists” are talking amongst themselves about what they’ve stumbled upon, that there was giddiness behind the core concept of the film, a deeply felt joy.  In that sense, this film lies heavily within the boundaries of hardcore science fiction, rather than the more character/plot-oriented genre of “speculative fiction”.

Still, credit should be given where credit is due. Primer had an estimated budget of a measly $7,000. I know of Hollywood films with budgets exceeding several hundred million dollars that have subjected audiences to far more mind-numbing degrees of incoherence.