PSA: Blade Runner (1982), or Fiery The Angels Fell…

27 12 2009

The last PSA of the year. I wanted to end things on a high note, so I thought I would finish my sprinkling of Public Service Announcements about cinema with a movie that should be mandatory for moviegoers of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner sits atop the apex of science fiction in a very real sense with a very small handful of peers, and I don’t say that in a sensationalistic manner. This movie, released to dumbstruck audiences in 1982, revolutionized the way sci-fi movies are made. For America, it re-institutionalized the intelligent science fiction film, a genre lost in a mire of post Star Wars mania and established Ridley Scott as a director wh0 had something meaningful to say as a filmmaker. It’s a hypnotic, passionate futuristic noir about the very nature of humanity, and what it means in a cold, harsh future. It’s one of the best there is, and I think before 2009 closes out, you should invest just 2 hours of your time to this beautiful sci-fi masterpiece.

Based on a novel by sc-fi legend Phillip K. Dick, Blade Runner takes place in 2019, where we follow a detective named Decker who is on the trail of four humanoid robotic workers called “replicants” who have escaped from an off-world mining operation to hide on Earth. Decker is a retired “Blade Runner”, a detective who specializes in tracking non-organic humanoids and terminating them. He has been called onto this special case after one of a series of four runaways blows away a younger Blade Runner after being interrogated and escapes into the city. Decker travels from the tiniest cracks in the nasty, futuristic slum of 2019 LA to the top of the splendorous Tyell Corporation building, where the replicants are designed by the reclusive Dr. Tyrell himself, in search of information about these 4 strange runaways who look and act almost exactly like humans. He learns about their history, their design, and a most interesting failsafe on their particular model; a four year lifespan. Decker begins to deduce that perhaps these four are on Earth to discover a way to increase their lifespan, an act they feel that only Tyrell can give them. But along the way of tracking them down, he begins a strange relationship with a woman named Rachael, who works at the Tyrell Corporation. They harbor feelings toward each other, but Decker knows something about her that keeps him reticent; she is a replicant who doesn’t know she’s a replicant. Implanted with false memories, Tyrell created her as an experiment. Decker struggles to come to grips with this strange fact amidst his own feelings about her, the constant struggle to track down the replicants and their relentless leader, Roy Batty, and his own doubts about the assignment and his own humanity…

This is such a thematically dense work. Ridley Scott took an almost obsessive attention to detail as a director and turned it into something exquisite. Los Angeles 2019 is an absolutely complete world, a slum of a city that only houses the people who could not afford to live off-world. It is a world constantly darkened from the shadow of the skyscrapers and the industry that towers above, and there seems to be no hope left in the streets. Much like the noir films of the 40s and 50s, the city is a perpetually darkened hellhole, and acts as a harbinger of the ills to come. Scott’s futurescape takes from Lucas’s idea of a “used future”, but it goes so far beyond that. This is a dilapidated future, where the only lights arrive from neon signs and where the streets are filled with the whirring and buzzing of machines instead of the sounds of people; a future devoid of humanity in its human population, another interesting thematic decision.

And the cast is simply amazing. This might be the best Rutger Hauer performance I’ve ever seen. He plays the antagonist, Roy Batty, with such an intensity that it cannot be contained on the screen. He is a replicant, but he is more alive than any of the downtrodden humans he encounters on Earth. He is strong in heart and in spirit, and his is the true tragedy of Blade Runner, because while he is not human, his soul is great, which makes his four year lifespan all the more cruel. And his love interest, the attractive replicant Zhora, played by Daryl Hannah, is equally tragic. She is a playful female replicant who wants to live life to the fullest. Her character, as much as Rutger Hauer’s encapsulates a love of living that is exceptional and magical in contrast to the real human characters. Harrison Ford plays one of the greatest role of his career as Deckard, the replicant hunter whose life is slowly unraveling. He plays it with a style reminiscent of Bogart’s Philip Marlowe, a wise-talking gumshoe with a street-wise wisdom that is constantly at odds with the evil he encounters on the mean streets that puts his soul constantly at hazard. It’s a rich, complex character that will have you guessing, in some rare moments, whether he is even human, or if he is another lively replicant with a good heart and a short life. Sean Young is beautiful and compelling as Rachel, the replicant who doesn’t know she’s a replicant. She plays the character calm and cool, but underneath her exterior lies a confused and terrified woman who doesn’t understand what exactly is happening to her. Sean Young brings a surprising vulnerability here that I was absolutely NOT expecting, and it’s one of those things that really brings home why this is just one of the best films out there. Her candid romantic scenes with Deckard will leave you both moved and fixated to the screen as the two dance around their own emotions in totally unexpected ways.

Ridley Scott asks quite a few questions of us, some that we are perhaps not entirely prepared to answer. The nature of man, his destiny in an unknown future, and what it truly means to be alive are pondered very loudly here. Blade Runner is a very intelligent, beautiful movie that digs into the subconscious and forces us to confront ourselves in a very meaningful way. The characters are incredibly rich, vivid, and well-written, the score by the prog-new age group Vangelis somehow gets better with age, the story is powerful in a way that most sci-fi could only dream of being, and the film itself is still gorgeous, even after all the various cuts and versions to be released (for a more in-depth history of Blade Runner‘s rocky history, stick with me in 2010 for my planned essay on the making of this classic and how it might have easily been different!). It’s a timeless film that only seems to increase in character and insight as the years go on. I have so many things to say about this, but I’ll just leave you with the fact that if you have any desire to watch sci-fi, then this film is absolutely part of the curriculum! I give it 10 unwitting replicants out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow I will take on the great and wonderful Fellini film 8 1/2! Until then!


PSA: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or Magnificent Opulence

17 12 2009

Out of all the Wes Anderson movies I have seen, I like The Royal Tenenbaums the best. I am not sure if it is his masterpiece, but whenever I see this movie, I cannot help but lose myself in it. There is a quiet mouthing of pastel joy in the heart of this film, a blithe human spirit dressed in the prim and proper attire of a stuffy wealthy sensibility. Wes Anderson’s beautiful epic comedy/drama is really in a class of its own; there will never be anything quite like it, and it is that striking uniqueness that makes it so enjoyable, and what will make it a cinematic classic in the coming years.

The Royal Tenenbaums follows the very unique lifestyles of the Tenenbaums, a well-to-do family headed by ne’er-do-well Royal Tenenbaum. He and his wife Etheline raise three prodigal children, two of their own, and one adopted daughter. Chas is a science genius, Richie is a tennis savant, and little Margot is a little playwright in her own right (HA!). They’re all living on a high from their arly success, but in their prime Royal rains on their parade by telling them that he and their mother will be separating. Cut to a few years down the line, and the Tenenbaum children are all in a post-prodigal funk. Chas is over-protecting his two sons after their mother died in an accident, Margot is married to a much older man she doesn’t really love, and Richie is unmoored in life after a meltdown at a tennis match. The family is scattered about everywhere, but news of a family tragedy brings them together. Royal, aghast at the thought of Etheline marrying again and broke after years of lavish spending, fakes stomach cancer and asks to stay at the house to try and interfere!!! Everyone gathers to see their poor, allegedly cancer-ridden father, and Royal sees for the first time what a circus his family has become in his absence. He tries to help out with Chas’s sheltered kids by getting them out more, helping Margot out by trying to give her advice on her relationship, and helping out Richie by giving him his honest opinion on the fact that he’s in love with his adopted sister (!!!). All of this stuff backfires on him, and it only gets worse when it is discovered that he is faking his illness. Can this family ever get back together? Can the children ever heal their wounds? Can Royal stop being such a damn jerk?

This gorgeous pastel movie practically drips off-beat indie-ness. it is everything fragile and forgotten, everything tragically hip and unnecessarily kept on the inside. It reminds me of the rare artistic child in school who had real problems, not some imagined malady that plagued him in a philosophical sense. It is a realization of the innate humor and sadness in the idea of a prodigy, the ones who peak too soon. It is sad that they have nothing to look forward to, but there is something so splendorous about their lameness that Wes Anderson captures so well. Anderson explored a little bit of the child savant idea in Rushmore, ANOTHER film I reviewed, and it stuck out to me then. This is something of a meditation on the notion of the young coming into their own, but growing up to be horrible adults. It is as well as a story of redemption, because everyone is running away from their responsibilities to themselves and others and they need a second chance at life. That’s where the good and at times loving heart of The Royal Tenenbaums lies, this idea that we all need a second chance to try again.

The soundtrack is one of the best I have ever heard. Anderson knows how to pick some good lo-fi acoustic jams for his very soft-spoken style of filmmaking. Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison, Erik Satie, The Rolling Stones, and others all pitch in some nice frolicking tunes for the movie, which make up the emotional center of the movie, since everyone is usually too damaged to say what they mean. The best example of this is from the clip above, when Richie tries to commit suicide. It is one of the most haunting images ever committed to film, and not a word is said in nearly 3 minutes. All that we hear are the strained chords on a beat-up acoustic guitar while Elliott Smith gently pounds away his terribly sad song, “Needle in the Hay”. These characters are either quiet, unable to say what they want, or comically dumb, so it’s up to the beautiful music that Anderson chooses to let us in on the mood, and he does a great job in informing us with as many rich details as possible.

The cast is PHENOMENAL!!!! What a great ensemble! When you hear about a great ensemble cast, this is the one that all others are compared to in the new millennium. Gene Hackman leads off as Royal Tenenbaum, the patriarch of the family and an all-around jerk. He’s pretty funny in that offhandedly thoughtless way. Owen Wilson, the co-writer of this with Anderson, does a fantastic job as well, as Eli, a friend of the family who always wanted to be a Tenenbaum. He flies by without much of a fuss, but his few key scenes are a delight. Owen Wilson is my favorite actor here. He plays Richie, the emotionally complicated tennis savant. There is a lot going on here, with the “loving the adopted sister” thing, so he has a lot to juggle, but he shows that he can really hold his own as an actor (too bad he’s hocking cell phones on TV nowadays…) Gweneth Paltrow is dead-pan Margot, adopted daughter of the Tenenbaums, and she adds a meek sarcasm to the movie that I think it really needed. She is sassy in a quiet-but-hilarious way, and in a few of the comments she makes, she tells a little story about her life that is WAY more exciting than anything going on at the time, which is, ironically, quite exciting. Ben Stiller is Chas, in his first real acting role since Reality Bites in the 90s. He has not really acted since, so if you liked him playing the straight man here, as I did, relish it, because it will not be happening very much more in the future, I believe. Anjelica Huston rounds it all out as the quiet, demure mother, Etheline. She is what drives the whole movie in a way, and her classy, independent ways are very close to how I see Mrs. Huston in real life. What an actress! What a lady!

The Royal Tenenbaums is good for me on so many levels. The music, the direction, the unique cinematography, the cast, the cameos by Bill Murray and Danny Glover, and the script come together in a wonderful collage of hilarity and heartbreak that I really, truly enjoy. If you like something that’s a little off-center and different, it also has a universal notion to it that we can all do a little better next time, and that’s a wonderful feeling to have, and it’s something that I can get behind as a filmgoer. You won’t want to miss this gorgeous com-dram that broke the mold back in ’01. I give The Royal Tenenbaums 10 adopted sister love-affairs out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow, by request, I will be watching Judgment Night! Until then!

PSA: Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971), or Trippy Stuff, Dude…

15 12 2009

Okay, this one is just for me. It’s been a long 12 months, and I need a movie for me every now and then. This is one of the silliest movies I could come up with, and it really has no place on any list anywhere for anything. But damn it, I wanted something that would make me laugh! I will watch The Departed tomorrow! I promise!

At the beginning of the 70s, Godzilla was already over a decade old, and so Toho Productions, makers of fine rubber monster costumes, felt it was time for a change. So they gave the reins of the character to the young bloods, the wild ones in Japanese cinema, to try and revitalize it. But, as the apathy of the mid 70s had not yet kicked in, people were still very much into making protest and message movies. So Toho allowed Godzilla to make a trippy, experimental message movie about the dangers of polluting!!! It’s chiefly about what would happen if the sludge from Tokyo Harbor came to life and attacked the city. The monster is named Hedorah by the young boy who discovers it, who also wishes that Godzilla, protector/destroyer of the city of Tokyo, will stop him. Looking like a gray melted plastic taco with terrifying eyes, Hedorah flies around…polluting things, and killing plenty of civilians, who probably caused its existence, so who cares? In the end, as usual, only the big green guy can take care of the city he loves so much by taking matters into his own hands. But with Hedorah’s horrible power of self-duplication and acidic excretions, is there any way for Godzilla to combat the fiendish beast of our own design?

Godzilla Vs. Hedorah is absolutely reviled in the Godzilla community. Most people think it is the weakest link in the entire 50 year saga of the character. I think this might be a lot of inexperience talking, though, because anyone who has seen a really bad Godzilla movie knows that they’re not anything to even laugh about. This is a hilarious fucking movie though!!!! Director Yoshimitsu Banno somehow combined the most popular genres of early 70s Japanese film into one handy amalgam. It starts out with an environment-friendly theme song about finding a solution to stop pollution, then we’re in a psychedelic jazz club getting high with some Japanese guys tripping balls. Then we’re off to hanging out with an environmentally conscious kid who teaches us about pollution and solar systems with the power of Japanese animation! Then, more psychedelia, followed by some horror elements when Hedorah starts violently turning people into gray human soup. And then finally, finally, we get some Godzilla around 45 minutes in. Almost forget it was a Godzilla movie? Me too. Such is the power of Banno’s amazing genre-defying film.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, the worst part of a Godzilla movie, if you’ve ever seen one, is the people. You’ll have them in any Godzilla movie; they’re basically mandatory filler for Toho Productions, who don’t think apparently that men wrestling in rubber monster suits for 90 minutes will keep our attention. And yet, to keep us rapt with attention, we have to watch a bunch of mouth-breathing amateurs prattle about how nice things are pre-Godzilla and how bad they are post-Godzilla. But this film actually takes steps to make the human characters interesting. My favorite people are the skeevy discotheque characters who are too high to notice that pollution is killing Mother Nature. At one point, one of the guys in the club has a bad trip, and everyone around him start wearing fish masks!!! Symbolic, of course, of the lack of fish in the sea, and how they’re all on land now due to pollution! Brilliant!!! And the kid who notices this pollution is something else! He’s hyper-streetwise! All the adults are stupidly unaware of why Hedorah has come to destroy them, but only little Johnny the know-nothing kid had the prescience to know that if you dump enough medical waste near the electric company, you’re bound to bring something to life!

As far as the fighting goes, I give it a solid B. Most people complain about how it takes Godzilla so long to defeat Hedorah, but the way I see it, the longer I don’t have to deal with people and can focus on monsters with powers, the better. Hedorah has the evil pollution attack, which is pretty deadly, and can fly, but for some reason also has laser beams in his eyes (???). Was that really necessary? “Okay, this plant monster, he’ll have vines to wrap up Godzilla, he’ll have some pollen to make him sleepy, and, you know what? Give him a drill arm. Just one drill arm.” Godzilla has his usual, and that should be enough to stop one Hedorah, but Hedorah’s secret weapon is the fact that it can divide and turn into multiple Hedorahs for fun and sport. This makes it more for Godzilla to take control of the battle, and so he falters a bit more than usual.

This is one of those movies where you have to look past the obvious crap exterior to really love it. It’s an environmentally, trippy Godzilla from the 70s who like to listen to prog rock and get wasted while staving off bad trips all the time. It’s really weird, but it’s endearing. I laugh often in Godzilla Vs. Hedorah; if it’s not the costumes the goofy humans, or the ridiculous musical stings,  it’s something, and I can get behind an environment pic that gets us to chuckle. I think, when given a chance, you will like it, especially when compared to some of the suckier ones of the decade (try Godzilla Vs. Megalon). I give Godzilla Vs. Hedorah 7 gray melted plastic tacos out of 10!

Tomorrow I promise to do The Departed! Until then!

I leave you with the inspiring anti-pollution song “Save the Earth” from Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, whose influence can still be felt today! Take it away, lovely Japanese lady!

PSA: Dark City (1998), or Let’s Start Over Again

14 12 2009

A big shout out to Alex for requesting this movie! Your name is now immortalized in my writings! In 60 years time, you’ll be able to print this very review out on a FUTURE! printer and send it into a literary authority for pricing. He or she will soundly laugh in your face and send you on your way, but at least it will get you out and about in your old age!

Okay, let me make this one quick because I have some sleeping to catch up on from a weekend where I saw too many movies. Let’s turn the clocks back a few years, shall we? Long before the movie known as Knowing totally burned down my trust bridge between me and director Alex Proyas. Let’s turn it all the way back to 1998, where techno was getting darker and angsty, the Matrix was brewing in the Wachowski Brothers’ brain stems, and we were living with a President who liked blowjobs on the down-low of the extra-marital kind. Back then, if you had told me a movie like Dark City was possible, I would have mightily doubted you. But assuaging doubts was something Proyas was good at back then, and I would have been put to shame once I saw one of the most cerebral films of the decade. It is a mind-bending sci-fi film that breaks barriers and takes more risks than I ever would have dared to as a filmmaker.

A big part of it is the story, written by Proyas himself. It is crafted so well, to the point that I am surprised that it is not based on a novel. It has all the makings of a great mystery, in the tradition of Raymond Chandler. Involving things as common as amnesia with things as unbelievably complex as the nature of time and the destiny of man as a species, we are taken from the noir to the nouveau and into the world of the extraterrestrial as Proyas weaves his tale of mystery and whispered truths into our minds with his cerebral, gut-punching cinematography and his intense special effects. The magic of Dark City is not the answers to these troubling questions, but how we arrive at the point of discovery.

The characters walk through half-remembered states of routine, living in a haze that seems almost manufactured. It seems like the world has always been that way, but nobody really knows for sure. The truth of their existence is more disturbing than they could imagine, but it’s always just out of their reach. Rufus Sewell plays an amazing amnesiac as the lead character Murdoch. He is really quite amazing here, pulling off what might be one of my favorite performances of his career. He’s fully committed in every way, and it’s his zest for discovery that makes the movie so fun to watch. Also intriguing is Kiefer Sutherland as the Doctor, a mysterious man seen around town in the company of strange, pale-faced men. His quirkiness is practically coming off the screen in chunks; I can’t remember seeing Sutherland so animated. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see him act so weird, so I suggest you relish it. William Hurt plays a detective similar to Phillip Marlowe who is in WAY over his head. He smolders with a low-voiced beat-down attitude that reminds me why I like William Hurt’s character acting so much. He adds so much to this, but you don’t ever notice it the first time, so just try to keep an eye out for him in this film. Do NOT keep an eye out for Jennifer Connelly, though, who plays Murdoch’s gal pal. She again looks helpless and weak throughout most of the film, and whether or not that was a character flaw,  it seems to me that too often I see her just ease up on any realistic emotional response and go for the Hollywood Shuffle. I think she has a lot of potential, but none of that shows up here in Dark City.

I could go on and on about this film. I really like it, and I think it’s a unique experience, even as far as Proyas’s filmography goes. But I am dog tired, so let me conclude by saying that if you were to see one sci-fi film from the 90s, I would probably make it Dark City. It’s well-crafted storytelling from start to finish, and it creates real movie magic by forcing us down this long, shadowy corridor of the mind, not allowing us to see the light until we’re all the way through. It’s amazing, and therefore I give Dark City 9 1/2 jittery Kiefer Sutherlands out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow we go to Boston for The Departed! Until then!!!

PSA: Kung Pow: Enter The Fist (2002), or This Is Actually The Movie That I Fell In Love To!

28 11 2009

Most people have either a love or hate relationship with Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. They will either say, “I thought it was HILARIOUS!” or “That was the dumbest piece of shit I ever saw…” And while I can’t exactly say that Kung Pow is NOT dumb, I can reply by saying that it’s unabashedly so. Kung Pow is that silly, stupid mix of comedy that wins me over with its sheer spontaneity. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and even after you’ve seen it, you still can’t believe they went there, of all places. I know because of it’s format I’m perhaps predisposed to liking it, since it mimics the MST3k style of comedy in a way, similar to Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. But this is like an extremely interactive, hyper-silly MST that features an array of different ideas, fun special effects, and off-the-wall characters that will stick in your brain long after you’re done watching.

Basically, director Steve Oedekerk re-edited the cheesy 70s martial arts film Tiger and Crane Fist and inserted new scenes, dialog, and characters. It totally throws away the story, opting for a new one. In this version, there is a terrifying martial artist/warlord named Master Pain roaming the countryside destroying all resistance to his rule, looking in particular for a child who will defeat him one day known as the Chosen One.  He stops by a tiny hut in the middle nowhere one night, believing to have found the child in the form of a newborn baby who bears a striking mark. He kills the parents in a matter of moments, but when it comes to killing the baby, he finds it considerably harder. The Chosen One, even as a baby, puts up a decent fight, kicking the crap out of him and his henchmen!!! Eventually, he loses, and Master Pain, believing him defeated, burns down his house. But he escapes, and grows up on his own in the wilderness, honing his martial arts skills for the day when he would meet Master Pain again and finally defeat him. He grows up into a great fighter, but one who needs direction, so he finds a home at a dojo to train with the legendary Master Tang. There, the eccentric Master trains him into an even better warrior. But will it be enough to defeat the evil Master Pain, who now goes by the name Betty (It’s an Asian guy with a moustache)? And can the Chosen One defeat Master Pain’s Betty’s henchmen, one of which includes a ridiculously evil martial arts wielding cow? Or will he end up causing the dojo harm by merely standing against Betty’s evil plans?

This film is insane!!! We have aliens, kung fu cows, people punching holes through people, telekinesis, women with three boobs, and talking tongues!!! There’s so much madcap fun going on, it’s hard to keep up with the jokes! Steve Oedekerk likes machine-gunning humor at people, just throwing stuff out there and seeing what sticks, and in my opinion, he gets most of it dead on. The thing you have to realize is, he’s not just making up goofy scenarios, he’s also doing a lot of satire, taking aim at all the old martial arts cliches and the weird things about them. A lot of the jokes he makes involve the dubbing, and all the goofy off-the-wall words and noises you can make them say to match the lips of whoever’s saying them with the new dialog. That’s why the Chosen One’s girlfriend, Ling, usually just makes a lot of nonsense words, because they somehow fit into her lips when the voice actress says stuff like this…

If you ever watched the badly dubbed kung fu movies from the late 60s and 70s, and always wanted add your own dialog to it, here’s a fun alternative!

The effects are pretty mind-blowing when you put it into perspective. The guy took a movie, remade it, and painstakingly added himself and others into it. It technically has more special effects per shot than nearly any other movie. The time it took to digitally insert these people must have been unimaginable, but the effect is pretty seamless. After seeing it 100 times like I have, you can  figure it out, but otherwise I would have thought he was actually part of this production in the 70s. Oedekerk is also all the voices for all the characters with the exception of one, and he was also the director, producer, and writer of this film. Pretty impressive when you consider he’s also the main character too!

With such a wealth of abundance from this slice of 70s martial arts cheese, it’s hard to choose the best gags. But here are a few of my favorites:

1. Master Tang Comforts His Dying Friend-

What a pal!

2. Chosen One Creates A New Word For His Frustrations-

I fully endorse that statement.

3. Intermission-

I think that speaks for itself.

And finally, possibly my favorite gag of the many, many found in Kung Pow:

WTF?!?!?! I don’t know what it means, but I like it!

So don’t listen to your friends, your family, the press, your youth minister, more reputable critics, the nation at large, your youth minister, IMDB, the box office receipts, various negative stereotypes circulating about the film, or especially your youth minister about Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Listen to me. I think it’s a hilarious movie with a lot of delightful insights about the martial arts film of bygone days, as well as some just plain weird, absurdist humor. It’s not on 100% of the time, but I’ll say that at least 80% of the jokes worked for me, so I’m going to go ahead and give Kung Pow: Enter the Fist 8 Wee-oo-wee-oo-wees out of 10! Take that, established critics of America!

Tomorrow I’m still in the dark about what I’ll be watching, but if you can think of something I should be watching, let me know!

And for those of you wondering about the title, this was the movie Bren and i would put on ad-nauseum in my room while we talked the night away those first few months of our relationship. It has a special place in my heart as the background noise to my timeless romance with the lady I’ll be spending the rest of my life with! So don’t write anything TOO snarky about it on the comments section!!!

PSA: Kingdom Of Heaven (2005), or And Peace Be With You

21 11 2009

One of my favorite films of the new millennium, Kingdom of Heaven is an under-appreciated classic, a treasure of a film that was shunned in many circles at the time of its release because of its incongruity and certain character flaws. It faded quickly into the realms of the forgotten, but I always held a flame aloft for the historical epic. I admitted to most of the flaws, albeit begrudgingly, but I still had a weird attraction to it, and until about a year ago, I couldn’t really explain it. Now, before about a year ago, I would have bowed to conventional wisdom that if I could not put my pro-KoH argument in words, than it obviously was not that good of an argument. But, last April or so, I discovered the reason that the movie seemed so off to me, and the source of a lot of anti-KoH arguments, is that the studio edited almost an HOUR out of the theatrical cut! AN HOUR! That’s a lot of info to leave out! Now, with a lot more backing this time compared to March of last year, I can safely say that Kingdom of Heaven IS a good movie, a great movie even. It’s not a perfect movie, but it skirts very flirtatiously with immortality, something I admire in a work of art.

We’re taken to the 12th century, between the Second and Third Crusades. Balian, a lonely blacksmith in France, grieving over the suicide of his wife, finds no solace in his work or his life doomed to obscurity. As fate would have it, however, a knight traveling through the area pops into his life. He claims to be his father, and offers him a choice; he can stay in the sad, empty husk of France during the Middle Ages and continue his life as if nothing had happened, or he can come with him to Jerusalem, where the knight holds court with King Baldwin IV. At first hesitant, Balian joins the group of Crusaders after hearing that perhaps his wife’s soul can be saved from Hell if he absolves her sins in the Holy Land (people believed that suicides were instant fodder for Hell back then, although some STILL do). Thus begins a journey of the self through the world of the Dark Ages as Balian travels from his tiny, myopic Medieval world all the way to the center of the world’s tumult, Jerusalem, where a new dispute is broiling beneath the surface of the Second Crusade’s short-lived peace. King Baldwin IV is dying painfully from his crippling leprosy, the Knights Templar are restlessly itching for a battle with the Muslims, their sworn enemy, and on the other side of the wall, a new Muslim assault is being only barely kept at bay by the efforts of their sultan, Saladin. The truce will not last much longer, and Balian’s part in this is larger than he yet knows. It will be a long, unforgiving road ahead for him, but with his wife’s eternal soul in the balance, he is willing to do anything to unchain her from the fiery pits below.

Let me start with the big flaw before I start gushing. Before it gets any farther, I have to comment on the fact that Balian is a total Harry Stu. In internet lingo, for those not in on the jive, that means that his character is just a LITTLE too perfect. He just happens to know a lot of things about a lot of things that would be helpful in the Holy Land, including the construction of siege engines, leading large groups of men, and considering he’s played by Orlando Bloom, professional heart-throb, he looks damn good while he does it. It all gets to be a little much sometimes, and by the end, I felt more than a little tinge of disgust for him and his implausible perfection. You know how awesome and perfect Balian is? During a boat trip to Jerusalem, his boat capsizes and sinks in a storm; he wakes up the next morning on the beach with no fellow survivors and a saddled horse ready to give him a lift! How serendipitous!

But when I say that that’s really the only thing I think is wrong with it, I mean it. Director Ridley Scott is so good he can make any subject come alive, and it just so happens that he also found one of my favorite historical periods fascinating. Every detail, with the exception of ultra-perfect Balian, is down to the T. Scott has recreated the Middle Ages with such a realism that they speak to us through the ages in the very subtext of his work. From the weaponry, the architecture, the interactions between people, to even the battle formations and times of day that Muslims and Christians fought during the 12th century, this is all genuine. there are so many stories to be told here, during the reconstruction of Europe from its massive, tragic downfall in the 6th century, I’m so glad someone used this period. And not only that, but I really appreciate the use of the different faiths fighting it out as sort of an allegory for today. It’s the same fight going on with different weapons and words, which Scott cleverly alludes to at one point, making the emotional ties to this ancient era all the more indelible.

The main cast is equally proportionate to the supporting cast here. Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, and other power players make short but memorable appearances that resonate throughout the movie. My favorite of these is Ghassan Massoud, who plays Saladin. While we never see hm that often, his character is similar to Baldwin in that he doesn’t want war, but political and religious pressures are pushing him into a battle that will cost many, many lives. He is excellent, and most importantly he’s a Muslim character that doesn’t give way into stereotypes that so many other films would have. As for the main cast, I’ve said my peace on Balian, but it must be noted that not everyone’s like that. There are some real winners, like Eva Green, who plays Sibylla, Baldwin’s sister. Her scenes suffer the most cutting, and it felt so vindicating to see the Special Director’s Cut edition and piece together what happens to her. She is a force to be reckoned with for me, especially now that the cut has been restored. She is given whole new sets of scenes that add to the emotional complexities, especially the ones involving her son. Without these scenes, her character is very confusing and inconsistent, and it is a definite boon to the film that she not go from one emotional state to the next without any coercing. Jeremy Irons electrifies as Tiberius, the Marshall of Jerusalem and Balian’s moral compass in the Holy Land. His scenes are few, but they are key, and Irons shows his expertise in authoritative but sympathetic words of wisdom as he tries to keep Christian Jerusalem from going into all-out war with the Muslims and Balian from falling off the righteous path. Edward Norton is the emotional heart of the first half of the film as King Baldwin IV. Underneath a silver mask to hide the hideous deformities left by his leprosy, he is trying extremely hard to keep peace in his time by keeping both the Templars at bay and his court satisfied with the truce. But his frail condition has many worried that the Muslims will attack and he will be unable to lead, or, worse, that he is lying down and making too many concessions to their heathen demands. He has so much weight on his slender shoulders, and watching Norton valiantly struggle to keep lives from being lost is heartbreaking and wondrously inspiring.

Sweeping cinematography, an immersive score by Harry-Gregson Williams, an extremely able cast, and a rich realistic tone make Kingdom of Heaven a sweeping film that should be remembered with the ranks of Spartacus and Gladiator in the realm of great historical epics. It’s a whopping three hours for the director’s cut, the only cut there should be, as far as I’m concerned, so there’s a lot going on. Luckily, it’s all great, and with the exception of one or two faults, I would be extremely tempted to call this a perfect film. To get swept away in this historical fervor is a joy and a pleasure that I plan to relish more and more often. Ridley Scott strikes gold again, and the Holy Land is done justice by his beautiful eye and his great cast. I give Kingdom of Heaven 9 1/2 leper kings out of 10. A high recommendation!

Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I don’t know what I’ll watch! It’ll make for a good review, though, I think! Until then!

PSA: Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny (2006), or Fun And Frolicking In A Box-Office Bomb

17 11 2009

I’m going to try to make this a quick review tonight. It’s not because I don’t care enough about the D: on the contrary, I happen to think they’re one of the funniest musical acts in history and one of the best satirists when it comes to the pomposity of rock music. Jack Black’s atrociously charismatic lyricism combined with Kyle Gass’s virtuoso guitar playing makes for comedy that happens to be musically accomplished to boot. I’m just going to make this short because this is the kind of movie where you already know if you’re going to like it. It’s a musical comedy that is rock-oriented and Jack Black oriented. If you like the things they did on the HBO show or their first album, you get more of the same, and if you didn’t, then you’re probably very much in the dark as to why any of this is terribly funny.

We learn here the origins of the D, a rock duo that came together when rock prodigy Jack meets older, more experience guitar player Kyle busking one day and admires his handiwork. Kyle at first is annoyed by this nobody who has seriously latched onto him, but he grows a fondness for the plucky kid, and eventually they learn to rock wonderfully together. They form a bond and a friendship that will carry on through the coming years, and their music perfectly represents this new-found camaraderie. But they need something special to break into the big time, something that will set them apart from the millions of other bands who play open mics nights as their regular gigs. An opportunity appears from a mysterious store owner, who lets them in on The Pick of Destiny, a magical pick made from the horn of the Devil that will allow for any guitarist to play on an entirely different level. The pick is being held at a rock and roll museum, nobody at the museum knowing its true power, and the two hatch a plan to take it from under everyone’s noses. Along the way, their mental alacrity, their physical prowess, and even their friendship will be tested, because the road to the Pick of Destiny is littered with obstacles. But with the assistance of their only fan, Lee, can they avoid death or a break-up and become rock heroes?

It’s a pretty funny flick that really got dropped by fans and casual moviegoers alike when it came out, probably due to all the other Holiday blockbusters edging it out at the time, not to mention the fact that their last album was five years prior, and they were striking while the iron was freezing cold. But still, all things considered, it’s a good comedy. The jokes are pretty strong, most of them involving how pompous they are in the face of their total obscurity and the fact that rock music is so full of shit sometimes. They love to use the idea that you can rock SO HARD that you can change the physical properties of objects, like “I’m gonna ROCK your face off!” or “I’m gonna kill him with ROCK!” like it’s fucking kryptonite. Rock is just as bogus and self-important here as in the real world, and the gags do a good job of representing that. And while there are a few slow scenes that don’t pan out comically, the overall feel is still very positive, especially in the songs that move this musical along. They’re all for the most part, really good songs, well-made and catchy with all the tasty riffage that we expect from Tenacious D. The songs are a little too attached to the movie, sometimes, and can’t really live very long on their own, but as long as you’ve seen the movie once, you can at least cope with it and enjoy without living in total confusion. My favorite song? A little track called Master Exploder where Jack Black actually blows a guy’s head off with his ROCK!

Kyle and Jack have a good rapport together that translates well onto the screen. A big draw to this is their seemingly ad-libbed humor is that they actually like each other, which seems to be mostly a fleeting thing in comedic pair-ups these days. They play well off of one another, especially in the latter half of the movie where they interact more with one another. Like real friends, they just feel right together, and there’s no amount of coaching you can do to get as close and as natural with someone else as you can see with these two. It’s a real buddy duo for a really good buddy adventure movie. There’s action, suspense, lots of ganja, cameos that range from the expected (Dave Grohl) to the surprising (Ben Stiller) to the completely unexpected (Tim Robbins???) that are all pretty good. Don’t be surprised if you’re not a fan of the D to find this movie a little lacking, but even for the uninitiated, I think you can easily find something to laugh at here. Check it out, but don’t expect anything as epic as what you find on the cover and the artwork. It’s just a good-natured comedy with a great sense of humor that will be remembered for its financial failure but should be remembered for its charismatic leads and for fun that really delivers. I give Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny 7 1/2 ROCKED TO DEATH CORPSES out of 10.

Tomorrow we get magical and mystical with the black-and-white version of Beauty and the Beast! Until then!