PSA: Magnolia (1999), or You Can’t Save Me If You Can’t Save Yourself

31 03 2009

Well, it’s the end of my third month here at the ol’ Cinematronica project. I’ve been doing a review every single day for the past 90 days, and I haven’t lost my head yet. Hopefully I don’t go off the deep end at any point in time and kill all the Cinematronica employees in a flurry of rage (admittedly, I am the only employee, but I would still have to be bat-shit crazy to do such a thing). Now, I haven’t hit the big 100 milestone yet, and for that, I’ll do something else really nice for myself, but 90 is still a lot, and I wanted a little treat, so there. Today is an impromptu PSA about a movie that was a gateway to the finer things in cinema for me. Magnolia is a little-seen masterpiece by Paul Thomas Anderson that features one of the best ensemble casts that I have ever seen, some of the best cinematography I have witnessed in the latter part of the 20’th century, and one of the most original plots to come out of America in quite some time. Some people feel it to be pretensious and overly ponderous, but who cares? Unless it’s trying to steal your credit card numbers, I don’t see a problem with a pretentious movie.

It’s really quite plot-heavy. I won’t divulge too much, as this film has enough plot to choke a regular film, but its basic outline is similar to that of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It all takes place during one day in San Fernando Valley, California, and it follows the entwined lives of 9 different people. All of them in some way are connected, and in some way all of them are wounded and confused about life. There is the police officer, Jim, who is a stickler for the rules and a very religious man, but who is also very lonely. There is the author of a how-to-pick-up-chicks book, Frank T.J. Mackey, who seems ever-so-confident but hides his personal life from the world. There is Donnie Smith, a former quiz kid on a game show in the 60’s who has fallen on hard times. There is Claudia, a psychologically disturbed woman with a coke problem and a self-loathing personality. There are other people and other stories, and they are all connected in some strange way. It’s a portrait of life, how we are connected sometimes by tenuous threads, and how those threads may at times be the only hope of our redemption and our salvation.

I love every frame of Magnolia. There is something special about this film, as if Paul Thomas Anderson knew that there would never be another one like this in the history of cinema. It is lovingly rendered from beginning to end. Anderson and his DP Robert Elswit are in total command of the scenes, even the unimaginably difficult long takes that are interspersed throughout this mammoth film. It is certainly a movie for an admirer of the craft, and for those who aren’t, it sure does look pretty. Anderson once said that Magnolia would be the best movie he would ever make. So far, although he has yet to make a film that did not deeply resonate with me, I have to wholeheartedly agree.

The cast is an amazing ensemble. Tom Cruise turns off his emotional blinders for a moment and actually becomes a very inhabitable character as Frank T.J. Mackey, the womanizer and chauvinist. I can’t thank him enough for turning in one good performance before he turned into a total psych ward patient in front of the entire world. William H. Macy plays Donnie Smith, the former child genius who is trying to deal with his inner demons. He is pathetic but immensely sympathetic, and he exists very seamlessly in this world with little pity. Melora Walters plays Claudia to extreme dramatic effect. Here, she looks like a skinny puppy lost in a filthy Californian slum, and she is suspicious of everyone, including herself. I enjoyed her immensely, but the real standout is John C. Reilly, who plays Jim the police officer. He is a great dramatic player, the world seems to forget now that he is a renowned comedic actor. Here, he plays the often clueless but extremely lovable cop with no frills. He has some of the best lines in this film, and he can make you laugh and cry within the same scene. You’ll find yourself rooting for him to find happiness even as the city goes mad around him.

It’s a wonderful plot, full of spellbinding characters who are fleshed out as well as you or I. The cast is one of the best this generation has to offer, bar none. And Paul Thomas Anderson is a director to watch intently, because there is no doubt that he has what it takes to make a great film each and every time. It was one of the first contemporary artistic films I had yet seen in my teenage years, and it left a huge impression on me. I love Magnolia immensely, and give it the full 10 perhaps-pretentious movies out of 10. Go watch it and grow as a lover of the medium!

Tomorrow we peer into The 25th Hour!

Bloodsport (1988), or Based On A True Story?!?!?!

30 03 2009

I cannot accurately express how much I love some of this 80’s cheese. Hell Comes To Frogtown was an extreme example of what was coming out in the B-movie vein during the Reagan decade, but it was by no means atypical of the era. There were many other completely crazy films out there that not only broke into a wide theater release, but were accepted by filmgoers at large. Today’s film is one of those accepted films of the era, a modestly popular martial arts film that has people shouting the over-wrought tap-out phrase “Matte!” to this day. Bloodsport is one of those films that, despite being ridiculous and laughably bad at times, is easily palatable and fun.

Frank Dux is a man who has spent his entire life training in the martial arts. His master, the affable Tanaka, saw much promise in him as a mischievous youth, and trained him to keep him out of trouble. Slowly, his prowess in the art grew, and by the time he reached adulthood he became a force to be reckoned with. His master, witnessing his potential, decides to tell Frank of the ultimate martial arts tournament, the Kumite. It is an extremely illegal freestyle martial arts championship that can sometimes turn deadly. Its ranks are filled with the best of the best, however, and Frank wishes to honor his master and see just what he is capable of. Unfortunately, the Kumite falls smack in the middle of Frank’s stint in the Army. He decides this is more important, though, and goes AWOL. Escaping to Hong Kong, he finds the Kumite in the disgusting and fascinating Kowloon Walled City. There he meets all the participants in the match-ups, including a behemoth vale tudo fighter he befriends named Ray Jackson and his manager, Victor Lin, as well as a very dangerous opponent named Chong Li who won the previous Kumite and is known to have killed men in the ring before. Between he and Chong Li, however, lie a number of dangerous opponents that are highly skilled and trained in various forms. Can Frank Dux take on these ruffians and claim the honor of victory for himself? Will Chong Li kill Frank if they face one another? And will the Army catch up to him to take him back?

So, this is purportedly based on a true story of the life of the real Frank Dux, a martial artist and founder of his own school of fighting, who alleges that he, in 1975, engaged in a real life underground Kumite. I highly doubt this. I am by no means a martial arts film expert, to my shame, or an expert on martial arts tournaments, but it strikes me as very convenient that the things that Dux alleges are, by their very nature, unverifiable. After all, if anybody knew that this was going on, there would probably be police action taken against this incredibly dangerous and possibly lethal den of iniquity. Therefore, he can allege all he wants without fear of reprisal or inquiry. Not to say that the man is a cad; he spends time with disabled children, keeps a scholarship open for needy kids, and invests in clean, renewable energy with the money he has made off his many entrepreneurial excursions. But this is yet another movie that makes a mockery of the idea of putting the words “Based on a true story” in front of something. If we don’t KNOW something is fact, then it is not necessarily true. So until we clear this up, lets just call this film Bloodsport: Based On An Allegation Pending Investigation. Does that roll off the tongue, or what?

But besides the whole “true story” thing, its not a bad flick. I really got into the idea of being a greasy white guy in Hong Kong beating up dudes left and right with my indomitable skills. The Kumite is an interesting concept, and the characters it attracts are equally as interesting.  Frank’s friend Ray is weird enough in his own right. Played by Donald Gibb of Revenge of The Nerds fame (He played Ogre. “NERDS!?!?!?!?”), Ray Jackson is a mountain of man who uses the martial style vale tudo like he was made out of bar-room kung-fu himself. It’s weird to watch a behemoth like him move so fast; it’s like seeing your house win a marathon on TV. Chong Li is played by Bolo Yeung, and he is an ass-kicking machine. The character is really brutal; he makes people SCREAM “Matte!”, which is my favorite thing about this movie. Much like the film Gymkata‘s cry of “Yakmala!”, the repetition of “Matte!” as the way to tap out and leave the Kumite ring was used to the point where I thought that they might have wanted to start a catch phrase with it. That didn’t exactly work, but I still get a giggle when I see a grown man versed in the arts of combat cry “Matte!” like a seven year-old.

This was one of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first starring roles. He is still young here and just itching to kill someone. It makes you appreciate the skill that made him famous. No, not his acting, of course! I mean his ability to do a complete split and punch people in the balls while he is still low (!!!). He does this gruesome deed at one point and merely watching it made me proud to be an American (note: Jean-Claude Van Damme is Belgian, so perhaps my patriotism is misguided…) Seriously, though, Van Damme here is very good here, and I cannot imagine the grueling training that took him to that point in 1988 where he looked ready to rip a man’s heart out. He has since gone on to a roller-coaster ride of a career and a lot of rejection, but here he is still fresh-faced and ready to take on the world.

So, are you ready to submit to the power of Bloodsport yet? All you have to do is say one word… It’s a fair martial arts film, out of the few I’ve seen, and it combines a mix of various world styles to really emphasize the international aspect of the Kumite. Check it out if you are interested in martial arts films or, as in my case, you love to watch a lot of faux-intimidating 80’s badass dialog. If you’re not sold by this review, just watch the music video above and I guarantee you’ll be sucked in. I give Bloodsport 7 quote-unquote “true stories” out of 10.

Tomorrow is the end of my third month straight reviewing movies, so I’m going to treat myself by watching one of my favorite movies EVER! That’s right; the one, the only! Magnolia!

The Night Out: Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009), or Why DO All UFOs Land In America?

29 03 2009

I think that if we looked at the world of computer-animated movies like a map highlighting the the world’s wealthiest nations, we would find Pixar to be America, Dreamworks to be China, and all of the independent studios to be Haiti. If we were looking at a pie chart that showed which studio was imbuing the most quality and class into the industry, however, we would probably be looking at a solid color circle. Because when it comes to these computer animated children’s features, Pixar is the studio making movies that will last. Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Toy Story, while not all particularly my cup of tea, are indisputably well made and will stand the test of time with their simple but powerful messages, their exquisite scores, and their beautiful animation and character design. They create modern classics that are technically proficient and well crafted, but here’s my gripe with them. They’re not really that funny. They set up an awful lot of jokes, but most of them are cute rather than outright funny. And, trust me, I can live with a joke that is at least cute (it’s when it falls flat and suffocates to death that I start to dislike the movie). But when I want funny in my children’s films, I’ll go to Dreamworks. Dreamworks is infamous for their spotty track record, their dated pop culture references, and the use of pop music in their scores, which is risky to say the least. But, bottom line, for every Shark Tale or Over The Hedge they make, they will make a genuinely funny movie like Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of The Were-Rabbit or today’s feature, Monsters Vs. Aliens, that might not age very well but made me laugh long enough to forget I was watching a kids movie.

Here’s the gist. Susan Murphy is your average, everyday woman who just so happens to be getting married. She is marrying Derek Dietl, a weatherman who seems a little preoccupied with his occupation, but a somewhat affable schlub at first glance. She is outside of the chapel after a talk with Derek about moving to Fresno for a job opportunity that’s more about his ego than their happiness (jerk) when disaster strikes. A giant glowing blue meteor comes hurtling down from the sky, completely crushing her. But when a bridesmaid comes out to see her, she is found to be unharmed. Strange, but not as strange as the ceremony, when she starts glowing blue and growing exponentially! She grows to titanic size, demolishing the church and freaking out all the guests. A secret government division intervenes in the situation, sedating her with a giant hypodermic needle and taking her away. She awakes later and finds herself in a giant government collective where monsters are kept for experimentation and research. She finds herself in a room with the Missing Link, a mad scientist who turned himself into a half-man half-cockroach, a blob that was created from genetically engineered tomato (?), and a 350 foot-tall grub who came from nuclear radiation. They all think that they are going to rot in the facility for as long as they live, which makes Susan incredibly depressed considering she was getting married only a couple hours before this whole accident occurred. But their chance for escape might be coming soon, because an alien threat, in the form of a giant robot, has threatened Earth, and the President is turning to the desperate situation of turning monsters against the aliens. Little do they know that it is the power of the meteorite that landed on Susan that the alien presence desires…

It’s a very straightforward picture. Everything is incredibly formulaic and it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. It is your typical “regular person turns into a freak, finds freaky friends who are better than normal friends, but can’t cope with that fact right away so person ostracizes freaky friends before finally realizing that different might not be such a bad thing and embraces change over stuffy normal life” scenario. This is essentially the plot of 80% of all animated features for kids nowadays, and we’ll just have to live with it at this point. Pixar made a film called Cars which is essentially the same scenario as this. The difference between that movie and this, again, is comedy.

I think that the comedy comes primarily from the superb voice acting. Let me exclude Reese Witherspoon from this statement, as she did nothing spectacular enough playing Susan to merit a laugh. Seth Rogen might just be the funniest guy out there right now, and him lending his signature voice to this movie adds a lot. He plays B.O.B., the blob, and he KILLS! He is so funny! He had all the best lines, and his completely inexplicable laugh just makes me laugh with its candid exuberance. Will Arnett is the Missing Link, and probably the only main cast member who actually changes his voice for the character. He sounds like a wannabe badass and a bit of a horndog, which is weird when you see him and realize he’s a knock-off of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, but he gets an A for effort. And who can forget Stepen Colbert as the President? He is awesome, as usual, and a very believable clueless Commander-in-Chief. Tossed together with lines like, “Boys, set the terror level at code brown, ’cause I need to change my pants!” and an absolutely hilarious Invisible Man joke (I wept tears of joy at this scene), the funny comes a long way to heal the broken script.

It’s not entirely memorable, and it will certainly not stand the test of time, but I laughed long and hard at Monsters Vs. Aliens, and that has to count for something. I know that this is just one in a string of cookie-cutter animated summer movies deigned to suck dollars from the kiddies with its 3-D capabilities and bright color pallet (I saw it in 3-D, and it was a lot of fun that way), but this one I believe will stand out of the crowd for its wit and its talented cast. Check it out if you have a kid with a good personality and an oddball, more adult sense of humor or if you don’t have kids and just want to revel in your freedom (like me! LIBERTY!!!).  I give Monsters Vs. Aliens 7 genetically engineered tomatoes out of 10.

Tomorrow we take on the action film with Bloodsport!

The Chalk Garden (1964), or I Rather Fancy The Idea Of You Not Being In This House Any Longer, My Dear

28 03 2009

Morning, all! Today’s film is a reader submission by Pam. Thanks a lot, Pam! Keep up the good work; I need all the movies I can find!

Today’s feature is another hard-to-find film. I don’t believe it is difficult to procure because of its quality, but more because of time’s neglect and Universal’s refusal to chuck this out on DVD. The selection process for movies going to DVD must be very strange:

“Okay, so we have The Wizard of Gore, Swamp Diamonds, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, and The 6’th Day all coming out on DVD today.”

“But, Boss, what about The African Queen and The Chalk Garden?”

“Shut your mouth, Stevens! We have to put out the entire series of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and Child’s Play 3 before we can even THINK about putting those movies out!”

At least, that’s what probably happens. Anyway, this movie is a high-class British drama of fine standards that really isn’t so bad. It’s by no means perfect, but it is a lost gem in the sense that it is one of the few times we see child star Hayley Mills take out her long, sharp British claws. She is a real bitch in this movie! The tagline even says, to hilarious effect, “Hayley’s a Rebel With a Streak of Imp!” Yeah! Whatever that means!

So, we start out with a wealthy widowed grandmother, a Mrs. St. Maugham. She is looking for a governess for her granddaughter Laurel. It sounds easy enough, but they have hit a snag in the search. It seems that 16 year-old Laurel is a total, absolute hellion who does not want a governess. Every time one is hired, she digs away at them, examining their pasts and berating them until they decide to leave. She is incredibly mean, a constant liar, and considerate of no one, not ever herself. One day, though, things change when a Miss Madrigal applies for the job. She is very strong-willed, and not too intimidated by this little terror’s wild ways, though she admittedly may have some misgivings (she also takes on the job of gardener to cultivate the chalky soil that Mrs. St. Maugham and her aging butler Maitland have mismananged over the years). She has something in her past that she is not divulging, and she plans to keep it that way despite Laurel’s constant digging. So the movie is both a war of attrition between Miss Madrigal and Laurel as well as a genuine concern for one another. Laurel is lonely and hurt by her mother’s hasty flight from her to go live with another man, and Miss Madrigal has something that hurts her as well, and they both in subtle ways show their concern while still battling to keep up their own barriers. Can these two open up to each other? What will happen when Laurel’s mother enters the scene, wanting to be with Laurel again? And just what is the secret behind Miss Madrigal’s eyes?

This movie is like Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee or any number of droll British professional babysitting movies involving dreadful children, jelly-spined parents and strong-willed adults willing to put up with both of them, albeit with a few key differences. First of all, obviously, this is just a tad bit darker than those afformentioned films, with themes of abandonment, depression, and murder (the title is a strong metaphor for life sprouting up in a terrible environment). It makes for a drama both children past a certain age and adults can watch together without either being incredibly bored. Secondly, there is a clear twist on this formula with not only the children having a dark history, but the nanny does as well. Miss Madrigal is no naive Pollyanna, and that does well to bridge the gap between the warring duo as they almost compliment each other. And also, as this was originally a stage production written by Eric Bagnold, it is much more dialog driven than other movies of this sort. I find this works to a spellbinding effect due to the break-neck pace of proper English dialog, which sounds more like a ribald machine gun at times than it does human voices.

The cast was mixed, I feel. Hayley Mills as Laurel certainly portrays a loud-mouthed sad-sack, and I think that she should have been more of a star than she ended up as. When they are painting on the beach, and Miss Madrigal admires Laurel painting, and Laurel says, “Thanks for the compliment. Don’t expect one in return!”, I busted out laughing at the sheer rudeness of it all. She had the chops, but she couldn’t escape Walt Disney’s child star trappings. Here she shows off just a glimmer of what could have been, and it is very good indeed. Miss Madrigal was played by Deborah Kerr, and she is spectacular. Her Emma Thompson-esque glowers made me cringe whenever she looked at Laurel sometimes, and I was horrified to learn that she was not nominated for an Oscar for this role while Edith Evans was. Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham, and I feel like she sleepwalked through the whole thing. She had a line here and there at the end that was a real zinger, but I do not feel that her performance was good enough for this movie, let alone an Oscar. Sir John Mills plays Maitland the butler here, and he is out-acted by his own daughter. He is nothing really special. I had hoped he would stand out, bring in some of that dry charm of his, but I was left wanting.

So a good feature that stands out, but is marred by somewhat of a cookie-cutter plot and indifferent performances here and there. It is worth a gander to hear some of the choice bits of Hayley Mills wit thrown out across the screen. This is the kind of movie to watch on a lovely Sunday morning while enjoying a long, casual breakfast with a couple members of your family or some good friends. I give The Chalk Garden 7 1/2 loud-mouthed sad-sacks out of 10.

Tomorrow is a surprise flick! Come back for loads of surprising review goodness!

La Roue (1922), or Mommy, Why Aren’t There Any Words Coming Out Of The Man’s Mouth While He Speaks?

27 03 2009

Note: I will not be doing J’accuse today because of procurement issues (i.e. my bit torrent died on me). And, seeing as I cannot afford the $40 DVD right now, we’ll just have to make due with another film by Abel Gance today. I hope I haven’t lost ALL of your respect. Sincerely, Eric.

It has occurred to me that I have not watched ONE silent movie so far this year. What is my problem, my major malfunction? I don’t know. It’s just been such a crazy time for films with audio that I had almost forgotten about those plucky little films that exist without. Calling today’s film “little”, however, might be a bit of a misnomer. You see, my film today, La Roue (The Wheel), is about 270 minutes long. That’s right, you heard me. 270 minutes. Four and a half hours of one movie (I took bits here and there throughout the day to watch it all). That doesn’t even seem feasible in today’s world, where a 90 minute film can cost about $100 million, and a movie can barely keep an audience for three hours before their need to do other unimportant things overwhelms them. I would love to see more long films in the three to four hour range after watching this one. It gives time for ideas to ruminate and elaborate themselves in your head. If they made films like La Roue today, I would watch them voraciously. Considering the public’s attention span and their love of sound and color, though, I don’t think that this will be a possibility anytime soon. Sigh…

Surprisingly, the story is incredibly simple despite the length. Sisif is an engineer for a French railroad. One day, he rescues a young girl from a locomotive crash. The girl’s name is Norma, and she is orphaned by the crash. Sisif decides to raise her as his daughter and considers her a sister to his son Elie (the mother died during birth, of course, considering this is the early 20’th century). So flash-forward to years later, where Norma has grown to be a wonderful, vivacious young lady, and Elie makes hand-crafted violins. Sisif finds misfortune in his cards with Norma, to his dismay, when he realizes one day that he is falling in love with her (!!!). He doesn’t know what to do, besides NOT wanting to sex up his adopted daughter, so he asks the advice of one of his railway partners, Hersan. Hersan uses this nasty little bit of info to blackmail his friend into giving up Norma’s hand in marriage to him. Aghast but resigned, poor Sisif agrees, driving Norma to him on his own train. Will Sisif seek revenge? Will anyone else in Norma’s skeevy family profess their love for her? And what would Norma think of all this?

Director Abel Gance was light years ahead of his time. He made a movie that was more engaging than a number of dramas today that have color and sound. He can really keep your attention with his flat-out breath-taking visuals that take you away to 1922 in an instant. He keeps his talent on a level that makes them seem superhuman, picturesque. The world of La Roue is essentially a moving work of art that could easily be disturbed by the slightest tinkering, but manages to keep its head still even in the final moments.

This is, honestly, an over-long movie, but not because of its length (confusing, eh?). I find it is very appropriate for a movie like this to be at the size it is, but Gance is at a crossroads here between genius and melodrama. This epic spends half its time coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like the use of edits to create mood or freeze frames, and the other half fawning over poetic musings about flowers and children or simply unnecessarily long shots of characters. There are so many good scenes here, and when they are good they are unbelievably good. But Gance falls prey too often to repetition and theatrical stand-bys. It could have filled out the running time by introducing new characters, inserting more subtleties into the main plot, or even adding subplots! But, as it stands, there are about five characters (really only four, but there is one side character named Kalatikascopoulos, and his name was so good that I thought he deserved some main character recognition) and too many shots of trains and flowers as metaphors.

The cast is very fine. Sisif is a sympathetic character despite his dubious intent, and you really pull for the guy considering how much of a drag his job is and how the rest of his life is unbearable besides his children. Severin Mars plays the character, and this was his last film before he died, so this was certainly a good note to go out on. Norma, played by Ivy Close, is beautiful and elegant, but essentially a victim, a character that has things happen to them rather than a character who makes a real impact in any way. And while being the damsel was common for women in 1922, it still nagged at me a little. Pierre Magnier is Hersan, and he is great as the dastardly character who forces his marriage on Sisif’s daughter fantasies. He acts like the locomotives his character worked on; they’re both built on momentum.

It is truly a unique experience to watch a silent movie. One becomes accustomed to the barrage of sounds and the saturation of colors that accompanies our modern day films, so watching this was a pleasant experience I plan on repeating sometime soon. La Roue itself is a great movie that could have been better had its running time been filled with more character development and less repetition. I would definitely watch it again if given the chance, and despite the maudlin subject matter I found myself with a warm sensation and a pleased smile at the end (and no, I had not relieved myself waiting for an intermission). I give La Roue 8 father-daughter love affairs out of 10.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Hayley Mills in The Chalk Garden!

PSA: Fantastic Planet (1973), or A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Alien

26 03 2009

There is nothing quite like hand-drawn animation. Thirty years ago, when today’s feature was made, there was obviously no other kind of animation. But now, computer animation rules the roost at the box office and revels in cultural acceptance. You can barely find an animated feature in most major theaters (the last hand-drawn effort in theaters was Persepolis), and it is quickly becoming a novelty again, just the way it began in the early 20th century. The decline of original animation is certainly a blow to the artistic community, especially when one takes a look at today’s feature, a French and Czech co-production entitled Fantastic Planet. It is eerie, nightmarish, serene, and implacable, a completely original animated idea that must be experienced at least once in your life.

We are taken to an alien world, where humans, known here as Oms, live on a strange planet filled with aliens, known here as Draags. The Draggs are blue-skinned bipeds with astounding intellect, strange meditative powers, and tower nearly a hundred times taller than the average man. This is their planet, and with their physical might and superior mental acumen, they lord over the tiny Oms and keep them as pets. One Om in particular is a child whose mother is killed by roughhousing child Draags who played with her too rough. The child is left sobbing as the children run away from the scene of their crime. Another child Draag and her father walk by and see the young Om defenseless and his mother slain. The young female Draag, named Tiva, takes the Om as a pet and names him Terr. Terr grows fast while Tiva stays the same age (an Om week is a Draag year). She teaches him tricks here and there, but looks at him like nothing more than a domesticated animal (she dresses him up in gaudy outfits and forces him to interact with other Oms in similar attire). Terr is no pet, however, and he has a very inquisitive mind. He begins to learn things from Tiva’s educational headset that plants information directly into the brain, and he grows more intelligent, intelligent enough to read the Draags’ language. One day, he decides that he cannot handle life as a Punch & Judy show anymore and decides to run away, taking the massive headset with him. Out in the wilderness, he finds wonders and horrors of all kinds, and he also finds himself growing smarter the more he uses the headset. What will he discover about himself in the world outside of servitude? Will he meet other Oms like himself who longed for freedom? Will he have to wear any more ridiculous costumes ever again?

This movie is not for everyone, I’ll tell you right now. This is a very odd film. Captivating animation brings to life otherworldly creatures and a cacophony of other bizarre images that will stay with you forever. Director Rene Laloux’s character design is unforgettable. This really is a film that stays true to its name; it really is a fantastic planet. I can’t even describe some of the weird things going on here. We have bodies dissolving into other bodies (!), we have fields of naturally growing crystal that shatter when people whistle (!!), we have fights to the death involving creatures with large mouths being strapped to Om chests and used as weapons (!!!). Yeah, weird.

Apparently, the premise of the slave or inferior class revolting against their masters was a reaction to the Soviets invading the Czech Republic. In that respect, I can honestly see that theme come through, despite all the oddities present. It is essentially a story about the independence of a people, and the repeated attempts of another race to stifle them. The themes are very strong and very bold, and watching it is actually quite empowering. Terr is the radical, the Lenin, the Mao Tse Tung. He rebels against the Draags, the Tsarists, the Kuomintang, and his battle is representative of our struggle for both individuality and independence from a tyrannical government. It is fascinating to watch as there are many layers of thought in this great little feature.

But the best part of this entire experience? The music. THE MUSIC! I am enthralled by this film’s eerie, ethereal music. It creeps into your head and will not leave. Alain Goraguer composed and recorded the entire score, and he deserves a credit bigger than the director in my opinion. It is a fuzzy, funky throwback to the sentiments of the early 70’s, full of noodling guitar work, mysterious background noises, and meandering melodies that stretch as far as the alien landscape Rene Laloux drew to the horizon. The most haunting aspect is the vocalizations. Watch the trailer and listen at the end if you want to hear a truly beautiful arrangement. It pulls you in, and as that is the ultimate achievement of a soundtrack, I highly recommend buying this musical accompaniment on DVD.

This film deserves a lot more credit. It is French, so perhaps I can cut you some slack for not having seen this yet, but you officially have no excuse now. Watch it and behold the wonder of a planet not of our time, dimension, or comprehension. I think anyone who has seen my reviews and likes what I like will find providence in this little seen gem. And hopefully this will prompt some interest out there in good ol’ fashioned hand-drawn animation. I give Fantastic Planet 9 Oms and Draags out of 10! Check it out!

Keep an eye out later tonight for my insanely interesting review of J’accuse! Don’t be the last one to read it!

The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), or This Movie Was Rejected By The MTV Generation!? Far Out!

25 03 2009

Have you ever heard of The Legend of Billie Jean? I’m sure you’ve seen it playing on TV once or twice but were never interested enough to actually change the channel. I have to say, though, that if you shrugged this off on TV, you really missed out on something special. You see, this little slice of 80’s melodrama is somewhat of a lost movie. Never released on DVD and long out of VHS print, this movie is difficult to own. Why is that? Well, I’ve heard two versions of the story. One: there are too many problems with the song licensing to ever get an agreement from everyone, considering the soundtrack was so popular back then, so the DVD has been delayed for about 24 years now (!!). It seems plausible, but still more than a little ridiculous and deserving of some more scrutiny as a theory. And two: the master copy of this film was burned in a fire some time ago and that the only sources of this movie that still exist are on VHS. This was on WikiAnswers, but I have never heard any corroborating evidence, so I can only say that until I do it sounds just as suspect as the other idea. But I’m sure you’re wondering, “Am I really missing that much by not watching this?” And the answer to that question is both yes and no.

All right, so it’s the 80’s. Billie Jean Davy and her brother Binx (??) are having a good time in good ol’ Corpus Christi, Texas. They’re enjoying themselves, not desperate or depressed at all despite the fact that they live in our nation’s Bible Belt, when all 0f a sudden some miscreants, led by the foul-tempered Hubie (???), show up and start harassing them. After a bit of a tussle, Hubie tries to rough up Billie Jean, but Binx, in a fit of rage, actually rips Hubie’s arm off and beats him to death with it!!! Can you believe that?!?! Well, okay, that doesn’t happen, but instead, something much more insidious happens: Binx throws his milkshake on him! Oh, the humanity! Billie Jean and her brother then escape on Binx’s scooter, thinking they are in the clear. They go to some quiet lake to cool off and relax from the fracas, but OH NO! Hubie comes to settle the score. They trash Binx’s scooter in retaliation for the milkshake incident and speed away, pleased with their handiwork. Well, Billie Jean decides she won’t take this lying down and calls the police about the scooter, hoping they will do something about it. Unfortunately, it looks like there will be no doing of anything about anything, because the honorable Detective Ringwald, the officer they speak to, does not take the situation seriously and blows it off. Billie Jean is undetered, taking the matter into her own hands by talking to Hubie’s father at the store he owns. She asks for a couple hundred bucks to fix the scooter, which seems like a reasonable request. Hubie’s father, being the gentleman he is, takes her up to a room upstairs and uses this as an opportunity to try and rape her (!!!). Binx, while downstairs, sees a cash register behind the counter and opens it. It has a gun in it, and he picks it up for some reason. Well, when Bille Jean runs down the stairs in a panic and Hubie’s dad chases menacingly behind her, Binx panics and accidentally shoots Hubie’s dad in the shoulder! They run off, go back home, pack a couple things, and go on the lamb from the cops! The story spreads across the nation, attracting a lot of attention for our heroine, who becomes a poster child for the struggle of modern youth against the oppression of adults! Billie Jean cuts her long hair, opting for a more striking crew cut, and sends in a tape to the media explaining the situation, demanding only the money for the scooter and an apology from Hubie’s dad. Suddenly, girls across the country get the same haircut and dress like her to make a statement! And all the while, Billie Jean and brother Binx are skirting run-ins with the law at every turn. What is going to happen to these two upstanding youths who just aren’t understood by the establishment?

Crazy, huh? This was a very odd movie. I had heard from people who had seen it that it was a very inspiring message movie and that it was very eloquent in its statement. I can see where they got that, sort of, but more than anything I noticed that this movie was INCREDIBLY 80’s kitsch. If you were wondering if uptight Texas was as weird and wacky 20 years as the rest of the nation, well wonder no more. The haircuts and the outfits alone will send you through a time warp, not to mention the haunting melodies of Billy Idol, the Divinyls, and Pat Benatar.

I know that the message of the movie, a mix of youth and female empowerment, is very important and it is one that I happen to believe in very firmly, but I think it can be lost in the style that was custom-fitted right down to the ripped commando jeans for the MTV generation. This was obviously targeted to an audience of teenagers who were as confused about their futures as their clueless parents, so perhaps they did too good of a job relating to these people because the ideas come off as confused as they did, which might not only explain Reaganomics but the mired message of this movie. It wants to be fun, but it also wants to be dead serious. It wants to say something, but it also wants to be ultra hip and styling. That is not to say that these ideas are all mutually exclusive, but it must be noted that a balance should be struck, instead of an obfuscating tonal teeter-totter.

Oh, and what the fuck is up with these names? Billie Jean I can accept, but Binx? HUBIE? There’s a character named Putter?!?! We don’t all have idiot ranch hand names in Texas, I just want all of the rest of the world to understand that. I am from Texas, and my name is Eric; not Brick or Gump or Cooter. Let the world be made aware.

But I’ll admit that I had a good time for the most part. It was enjoyable at times. The moment Billie Jean dons the crew cut is pretty powerful, and it is one of the film’s really genuine scenes. Christian Slater as Binx is somewhere between completely shameful and tolerable; I’ll get back to you as to which one he is later, as I haven’t yet made up my mind. He is entertaining at the least when he shouts out “cool” one liners (when someone asks him what school he goes to, he proudly retorts, “No way, guy, we don’t do schools!”). And I love seeing all the Billie Jean look-alikes wherever the camera turns. It does assume a social conscience that I’m not entirely convinced most teenagers have, especially in the middle of a Republican decade, but it was inspiring to see teenagers caring about SOMETHING in a movie from the 80’s that had nothing to do with partying.

I would watch this picture again. Maybe not for a while, as I have to de-saturate the neon colors on my computer screen from all the embarrassing get-ups, but probably later. If you like Yankees pretending to be Texans and teenagers (kinda) speaking out against “the man”, well this is the movie for you. Otherwise, I would not bother paying for an import DVD of this or scouring your cable box for a showing of it. It can be fun, but there is a lot to wade through before that time comes. I give The Legend of Billie Jean 6 Eric “Cooter” Youngs out of 10.

Tomorrow is the PSA! And it’s also a surprise! So come on back for a heaping helping of professional reviews!

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), or Alec Guinness Is A Classy, Classy Man

24 03 2009
How come railways are never built in a nice, civilized manner? Theyre always built with slaves and prison labor.

Oh, Kwai me a river, William Holden! HA-HA! Thank you, ladies and germs, I'll be here all week!

World War II was one of the biggest, most devastating events in human history. Looking at a map of all the conflict areas, there were so many fronts to this widespread war that a lot of people don’t really cover or mention. That is what initially attracted me to today’s film, The Bridge On The River Kwai. It takes place in a POW camp in Burma, a country whose action during World War II I was not aware of. It is a story you don’t see very often, which is special in its own right, but once you start watching the movie, it’s the spectacular performances that really make this movie stand out for me.

It all begins in 1943. Shears is an American Naval officer captured after his boat sank during a battle and sent to a Japanese POW camp managed by the vicious Colonel Saito. Everyone at the camp is forced to work on a project for the Japanese, namely a bridge over the Kwai river that will link Bangkok and Rangoon together (the Burma-Siam Railway). He and the other POWs are resistant to the idea of aiding the Japanese, so the project moves along slowly and is plagued with sloppy workmanship and even outright sabotage. Shears himself constantly bribes the guards to get light duty and keeps everything to a snail’s pace on his end. He has a mind to escape, but he is waiting for just the right time. Everything changes once a group of British POWs is sent to the camp. Led by the extremely British Colonel Nicholson, the group of officers marches in defiantly and smugly, whistling the Colonel Bogey March and flaunting their Britishness. When Col. Saito informs the Brits that they will also be working on the bridge, Nicholson reminds both him and his men that under the Geneva Convention, officers are exempt from manual labor. Saito, irate at the insubordination, almost orders them all shot. But, fearing an inquiry of his actions, he instead leaves them to stand out in the heat. They all stand in the blazing sun, not one of them willing to give in. This defiance inspires the other POWs, eventually setting the bridge behind schedule. Needing the POWs back on track and fearing what will happen if he fails to deliver the bridge, he reluctantly excuses the officers from work. The men rejoice and find some relief. Nicholson, however, goes off to inspect the bridge out of curiosity.  Unbelievably, he finds it to be a horribly sloppy affair and begins to find ways to make the bridge better (!!). He turns it into his own vanity project, telling the men that it is a matter of British pride that the bridge is built the best it could possibly be (!!). Will the loony Nicholson really try to finish the bridge, unwittingly aiding the Japanese? Will Shears really make his escape from the deadly Burmese camp? Will Saito just lose his cool and kill them both?

There is so much story to cover. It is a sprawling 2 1/2 hour war masterpiece, and there is a LOT of plot. Director David Lean is a master of the epic, and this, the first in his trilogy of war epics, is doubtless one of the most captivating films ever made. For his part, it has to be the way he is attracted to the power in an image. The grand vistas, the long shots of the POWs constructing a bridge to tame a river (spitting in the very face of nature in a way), and even the caliber of the actors all exhibit a proclivity towards a sort of cinematic majesty. His shooting style is not for the subtle, but for those who appreciate the grandiose and the bombastic, he may just be one of the greatest directors who ever lived.

Classic scenes abound in this film! The immortal Colonel Bogey March scene has been parodied in countless films (most notably Spaceballs), to the point that nobody really remembers where the original concept came from. It is such a cheeky British thing to do, and this film is rife with cheeky Britishness. Nicholson’s march from “The Oven”, the sweltering box he is placed in for insubordination, is also a wonderful moment of dignity and strength for the character, although the heat must have gotten to him in there, as not even a day or so later he is working on the bridge anyway (!!!). And when Saito, played by the  precise and proper Sessue Hayakawa, explodes with anger and delivers the line, “I hate the British! You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage. I hate the British!” His face says it all. It’s brilliant. That is how a classic performance is made.

Speaking of performances, I have to say that, and this may be the only time I will ever say these words, William Holden is totally out-classed in this film! Holden plays Shears, a smarmy American officer with a shady past, and he does a spectacular job of venting our frustrations with the whole situation. But far and away the best actor here is Alec Guinness, who completely loses his mind on the river Kwai as Nicholson. He is at once brave and delusional, a gentleman and a cad, a zealous patriot and a traitor. Only a man with real class can pull off such a complicated role, and boy, does Alec Guinness have class. My favorite part of this movie is Nicholson’s body language. Watch him throughout the film to see what I mean. There is not a moment where he loses his poise. Not one. He keeps his head even while he is surely going insane! I love it, and I think you will too.

So if you have 2 1/2 hours that need to be filled with something meaningful and aesthetically pleasing, you could not think of a much better use of that time than watching this film. It is not just great; it is important. You have humor, action, drama, suspense, and madness chucked in there for good measure. What else is there to say? I give The Bridge On The River Kwai 9 1/2 eloquent S.O.B.s out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I take a look into The Legend of Billie Jean! Until then!

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), or Love And War

23 03 2009
This is the kind of romance you dont see every day. This is wondrous.

This is the kind of romance you don't see every day. This is as wondrous and destructive as it gets.

The French New Wave was a movement that nobody in cinema will ever fully forget, but I don’t believe that a lot of people know what it is that they are remembering (or partially forgetting). These innovators created something for the world that people are re-discovering all the time, and that is the idea that a story doesn’t necessarily have to be the focal point, but rather the way the story is told. This idea allows the ability to tell stories in a whole new way through the chronology, the view point, or the perceived reality of individual characters. These ideas were dealt with before in more rudimentary ideas, but these young French upstarts, who were cinephiles themselves, looked at all the sources through which performances and imagery are derived in a film and came up with ways to bring them to the forefront of the movie. More recent films like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, where the concept of individual reality is put into the spotlight, are still indeed innovative, but they owe a large debt to films like the one I watched today, Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Elle is a married French actress. She is shooting a film about peace in the broken city of Hiroshima. She hides a great deal of pain behind her eyes, as if promoting peace is wounding her. One night, while trying to unwind, she meets Lui, a married Japanese architect. He is intriguing to her, as he also hides the same pain behind his eyes. They spend the night together, talking about the pains the war inflicted on them. Elle recalls her first love, a German soldier in her hometown of Nevers. Lui recalls his family here in Hiroshima before the bomb dropped. The two create something together as they entwined that one special night, a beautiful collage of memory, melancholy, and the fear that all love is perhaps destined for annihilation. Are these two falling in love with each other? If they are, are they falling in love with one another, or the rekindling of their buried memories and long-forgotten feelings? Can such a splendorous thing like love bloom from the ashes of Hiroshima?

Director Alain Resnais is a master of the war film, but not in the traditional sense. Many of his films document he struggle of those who live on after the war, those who lost something other than their lives. This is a wonderful picture documenting the lives of hurt people, people who continue living but whose emotions keep them always hovering over the grave. Elle has a lost love and Lui a lost family, and they cope with that by leaning on one another. Is that love? And if it is, is it not doomed, as they are both married? What can flourish between these two? Questions abound, but this picture isn’t giving any easy answers. It is intimate and unknowable at the same time, and therein lies its greatness.

The use of flashbacks is something that had never been done to such a powerful cinematic effect. We are taken to the present and the past as if they were the same thing, and perhaps they are for the people who cannot move on. In 1959, the flashback was used almost exclusively for exposition purposes and to get a point across. Resnais had the notion that maybe ideas could be supplanted via this device. Keep track of the flashback sequences here because they are some of the best you may ever see.

Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada are the couple of Elle and Lui. They constitute a bond that is deep but ephemeral, strong but impossible to sustain, and they perform all this with ease. It is amazing to watch these two interact with one another. These are characters that are important to them, and you can tell that by the real hurt displayed in their eyes. The performances ring true, and you can’t ask for much more than that. I would go more into detail about the cast, but there is nobody else really but these two. It is a movie set in a desolate city populated by shadows burned to the walls, so the intimacy is that much starker.

It is something simple to watch a movie and be entertained. It is another thing to watch a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour and be asked to think and discuss with others. There are many layers to this seemingly simple film, but the answers are never too far away from the pounding in your chest. I have nothing but good things to say about this film. I highly recommend it, and I’d love to hear what you think about it as well. I give Hiroshima Mon Amour 9 1/2 bombed-out Japanese cities out of 10. Simply amazing!

Tomorrow, we dive right off of The Bridge On The River Kwai!

The Night Out: I Love You, Man (2009), or The Epic Bromance Of Our Generation

22 03 2009
Paul Rudd is SO tiny and Jason Segel could have played Lurch in The Addams Family!

Paul Rudd is SO tiny and Jason Segel could have played Lurch in The Addams Family!

Well, folks, this one hits pretty close to home. My film today, the delightful I Love You, Man, is about a man who lacks a very important aspect of the masculine experience; guy friends. I myself have found in my maturity a distinct lack of close male friends. Sure, I have a number of guy friends I have known for a long time, but very rarely have I really bonded with another fellow. There are a few reasons for this. One: a lot of guys are pure, straight-up assholes, and I don’t want to have to look past a person’s horrible character traits just so I can hang out with them. I’d rather sit alone in a fucking cave than hear about how many chicks some dude is “laying down” or how good the Patriots were the year before. Two: women, while not for the most part interested in many of the things I enjoy, are good conversationalists. Guys, I’m sorry, but most of you can’t hold a conversation for more than a solid five minutes. Whatever happened to being rounded? All I hear about from guys is small talk, usually involving either sports or the weather, and, unless there is a firestorm coming to my side of town or a sports team is playing in my living room, I am not interested in either. And three, the most important reason: bonding with someone requires exposing yourself and putting yourself out there, which is apparently is the greatest taboo a man can commit. The platonic male relationship is constantly in jeopardy of becoming “too gay”, so even keeping in touch with another guy on a regular basis nowadays can be just a little too immasculating for the average male. So, if you come see my Facebook page (shameless plug), you will notice a startling trend towards the female persuasion, and that is why. I can see where they came up with the idea for this movie.

Peter Klaven has the same problem as I do. He has always been the
guy that would rather hang out with his girlfriend and her friends than go out and find friends of his own. And his current girlfriend, Zooey, is so special to him that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, so he proposes to her. She gladly accepts, and the preparations for the wedding begin to go into effect. But a question is brought up that Peter was not equipped to answer: who will be his best man? It comes to light that he never really had a best guy friend, or even a close guy friend for that matter. This doesn’t bother him too much until one night when he hears all of Zooey’s friends talking about how unhealthy not having any guy friends is and how that can make a man very clingy. Embarrassed, he begins to hunt around for a male friend around town. Unfortunately, not a lot of guys are very compatible with him. They’re either too aloof and too macho, or, over on the other side of the spectrum, actually gay. It’s not looking too good for him until one day, while at his job as a realtor (he’s running an open house to sell Lou Ferrigno’s house!), he meets Sidney Fife. Sidney, an investor who isn’t even looking to buy Ferrigno’s house and just wants to find some divorcees to sleep with, takes an immediate liking to Peter, and the two strike it off. Peter is incredibly nervous, as he has never found himself in this territory before, but Sidney’s brutal honesty and sheer charisma cause him to let down his guard and have some fun with his life. Has Peter found his best man? Will this new-found friendship completely change his life? And what about Lou Ferrigno’s house?

This was a great movie. I really enjoyed myself today every minute I was watching this. You know what the best thing that Judd Apatow and his band of ruffians has brought to the big screen in this new decade? Real-life situations. This is a situation that I think a lot of guys, though they would not admit to it, can relate to. Making new friends can be hard, and they show that in explicit, almost excruciating detail. Peter goes on a series of man-dates before he meets Sidney, and every single one of them is cringe-inducing. When one actually goes right, he is relieved and almost thinks he has found a friend when the guy comes closer and plants a nice, deep kiss right on Peter’s lips. Perfect.

This movie is all about the talent. The stars, Paul Rudd and Jason Segel, are the engine that this film needs to plow right into you and make you laugh. Paul Rudd is Peter, and he is so genuine as someone trying to fit in. He doesn’t know guy lingo at all, so, when talking to Sidney, he comes up with the absolute worst “casual” dude slang (while trying to come up with a nickname for Sidney on the spot, he can’t think of anything cool and just spouts out “Jobyn” for no reason!). He is uncomfortable with putting himself out there, and it really shows, to hilarious effect. His counterpart, Jason Segel, is the free-wheeling Sidney, who is the ultimate guy friend. He’s not judgmental, he’s 100% cool, and he’s funny to boot. Plus, he can do a dead-on impression of Andre the Giant (“Anybody want a peanut?”). Together, these two seriously funny actors tear up the box office competition and leave me rolling.

The cameos here are also really good. Jon Favreau pops in intermittently as Barry, a real jerk-off who represents about a third of all guys I have ever seen in my entire life. You know, the miserable asshole with the inexplicably hot wife who only exists to blow other people off? That guy. Luckily, Favreau makes you laugh the whole time he’s on screen, unlike the guys like Barry in real life, who just make you want to projectile vomit on them (Spoiler!). Rob Huebel plays Peter’s rival realtor Tevin Downey, another average dude who looks up granny porn at work and advertises himself on urinal cakes in chain restaurants. Okay, so he’s not that average, but he is pretty funny. And who could forget Andy Samberg as Peter’s gay brother Robbie? Oh, that’s right; I could. My only wish is that they had some funnier roles for the ladies. Last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall had the right idea with giving the women some of the good lines. Here’s to more hilarious ladies!

So if you’re like me (dashing, hysterical, rocking a totally hard bod) and can be honest enough with yourself to admit that Peter might just be like you in some ways, you’ll find a lot to laugh at here in I Love You, Man. And even if you have a lot of guy friends, at least watch it to laugh at our expense. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in theaters this year, and I think you’ll agree that it’s, uh… Jobyn! I give it 8 1/2 Lou Ferrignos out of 10!

See you tomorrow, where we discover Hiroshima Mon Amour!