Friday, August 26, 2011

Fire and Ice

NetFlix 3.4/5
IMDB 6.5/10
My Rating: 5/10

The dark lord Nekron advances his glaciers over the warm lands of the south, while our hero Larn battles orcs and teams up with mysterious hero Darkwolf to repeatedly rescue Princess Teegra and save the world.

If the above sounds slightly snarky, my apologies, but this film is so straightforward with its fantasy conventions that it could literally personify fantasy fiction as a genre.  Despite this, I'm giving it a lower rating than both IMDB and Netflix because I had a hard time getting past its flaws, much as I appreciated the amazing animation and artwork.  Before I start the review proper, though, let's do a little rewind to the year this came out, 1983...

Back then, animated anything was considered kids' stuff.  Trying to present an animated film for adults was fighting an uphill battle against a public determined to view cartoons as made for children.  Those of us "in the know", however, were drawn to all sorts of secret delights within the growing world of comics-for-adults, and probably the best single distillation of this was graphic magazine Heavy Metal.  Today's kids will look back and laugh, and know where to get far more extreme media online, but in the late 70's and early 80's, Heavy Metal came cloaked in exotic mystery and wild fantasy - Imagine if you will a world before the internet when seeing an illustrated novella of a naked woman fighting aliens was a BIG THING.  You probably had to be there.  And 10-14, and male.  Anyway, unlike all those modern films shot in 5 million quick cuts and tinted dull green, Heavy Metal and its ilk were genuinely "edgy" in their time.  The first big film I remember that really exploded this attitude into the public's face with a, "Take no prisoners and damn the torpedoes" attitude was the Heavy Metal movie, a personal favorite that I can still watch at any time, anywhere.

Two years after Heavy Metal debuted, this co-creation of Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta appeared.  Bakshi was a renowned animator determined to make animated movies for adults, and Frazetta is of course a living legend in fantasy artwork.  When these two got together, they created what is in effect a moving Frazetta painting - A gorgeous, colorful world of handpainted backgrounds and dynamic action. Visually, it's stunning in a way that single stills can't convey.

It's the sort of film where you just want to sit back and marvel at the fluid movement of the characters, and not just because Princess Teegra spends most of the film bouncing across the landscape in a nightie or less.  Bakshi's rotoscoped animation brings realism to the animated action in a way that's still impressive almost 30 years later, and he did it without computers.  So having said all that, why the middling rating?  

The problem is that for me, this is a 2/3 movie - Fantastic designs and fantastic animation missing a quality story to hold it all together.  It was written by a pair of comicbook writers but struggles to really grab the viewer, or at least this one.  I could look at it all day but more often than not, the story just fell flat to me.  "Young hero teams up with experienced character to save the damsel and defeat the evil dark lord" is the plot of nearly every fantasy novel ever written, and it doesn't get any fleshing out here.  The running time is part of the problem, because even at a short 81 minutes, I was suffering from some serious attention drift as long, dialog-free scenes of our hero running, climbing trees, sleeping in trees, hunting for food, running from wolves and re-rescuing the hapless heroine ambled by...again and again.  Teegra, alas, is not exactly a feminist icon - Her role in the film is to be captured and recaptured, and captured all over again any time anyone leaves her alone for half a minute.  Send this woman to the mailbox and you'll never see her again.  It doesn't help that our hero is continually overshadowed by the movie's real star, Darkwolf (Who came up with these names, seriously?):

Darkwolf is the fantasy equivalent of having Superman in the Justice League - With him around, there really isn't much for anyone else to do because by the time Batman's Batarang hits the bad guy, Superman will have flown him to the moon and back.  Darkwolf looks great whenever he appears and his action scenes are a treat, but they're too few and far between and when he's not around, we're left with the hopelessly ineffective Larn.  I can't help but feel this movie would have left a stunning impact in the psyche of my generation if only it had been edited down to a 20 minute short and inserted into a Heavy Metal-like omnibus movie.  Hey, it worked for Taarna...

So, sadly, that's my overall take - It's amazing to behold but not very involving to be drawn into.  If only the writing had been as excellent as the artwork, this could have been a resounding classic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Altered (2006) - A Guest Blog review

Trying something new here - I've invited a friend to do a guest review for me.  This review was brought to you by Nathan of Lost on Monster Island.  Enjoy!

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 5.8/10
My Rating: 6/10

Five high school buddies are abducted by aliens from a farm in Florida -- but only four of them survive. Fifteen years later, the friends -- whose lives have been altered ever since -- return to the farm to face their enemy and seek revenge.

"From the co-director of The Blair Witch Project" is not traditionally considered a good method of advertising a film. Unlike your regularly scheduled reviewer, however, I have only been around for two-and-almost-a-half decades and am still naive and optimistic to say "At least they tried" when watching a bad movie. I also actually enjoyed Blair Witch Project, inconsistent as it was - because I think sometimes you have to watch the movie that defined a cinematic style to appreciate the movies that came after it. Without Blair Witch Project, vastly superior movies like Cloverfield, [REC], and Paranormal Activity wouldn't exist. I'm also glad that Altered was made, because for viewers with more refined tastes, it has a lot going for it.

The movie focuses on four men who, at the start of the movie, have successfully kidnapped an alien in revenge for their own alien abductions as children. How they catch the alien is never explained, which is probably for the best. I can't imagine anything convincing the writers could have come up with - first they'd have to lure the alien out of its ship, then I guess they would try to tackle it, and these aliens are psychic so you would immediately blow your cover as soon as you thought "Okay, we're close to the alien ship. How do we kidnap one of the aliens?" This movie works a lot better if you don't think about it too much, and it's silly fun.

The big draw of this movie in my opinion isn't the acting (which is decent) or the writing (which is...subpar) but the special effects. The aliens are actually handled entirely using a man in a suit, a concept that works much better for films which involve a lot of physical contact between the protagonists and the monster. The characters have to continually restrain the alien, which eventually escapes, and the fighting and wrestling that take place in the film are much more convincing because the alien has a physical presence. It's heavy, it's actually doing the punching and biting, and when it picks things up, things are being lifted by an actual onscreen hand. This works in the movie's favor, because the movie has a very low budget to begin with and shoehorning in cheap CGI would have made it completely laughable.

A lot of big-name movies are full of missed opportunities: jokes or characters that could have been removed, scenes that play too long, or even story lines that start half an hour too soon (Skyline would have been a great film if it had been half an hour shorter at the beginning and half an hour longer at the end - or it least it wouldn't have been quite as terrible.), but Altered actually has the opposite going for it. It is a very small-scale film, with a low budget, no big-name actors, and a relatively localized plot. The aliens would theoretically retaliate if their kidnapped member was killed, but at no point do we see a fleet of ships surrounding Earth or hints at a global conflict between mankind and the angry green aliens who are evidently very easily kidnapped.

This movie is fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously, the actors are clearly doing their best and enjoying their roles, the special effects are almost all practical and therefore much more convincing than the ones in films like Transformers: Indistinguishable Shapes & Unbearable Noise, and there is an especially gory and amusing scene near the end of the film that I will always remember Altered for. This movie hits the right combination of gross, silly, dark, and cheesy, and though it's no Aliens (it's not even The Creeping Terror) it's an enjoyable one. Definitely an average movie with some great moments where it becomes good, and that's really all I ask of my films. 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cookers (2001)

NetFlix 3.1/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 7/10

After stealing a huge stash of drugs, speed freaks Hector (Brad Hunt) and Darena (Cyia Batten) plan to cook up an enormous batch of crystal meth and get rich quick. Hectors old buddy Merle (Patrick McGaw) has the perfect hideout / meth lab, an old abandoned farmhouse in the woods where no one will ever find them. Unfortunately, no one will hear their screams either. Turns out. they may not be alone after all. It seems the farmhouse is the site of a horrific urban legend. Paranoid and tormented by demons and terrifying visions, they fall prey to their descending spiral of drug use and mysterious horrifying hallucinations causing the scared and frightened trio to ultimately turn deadly against each other.    

This is one seriously intense, award-winning indie horror flick. Imagine "Blair Witch Project" crossed with the original "The Haunting", with little homages throughout to flicks like "The Thing" and "Halloween". For all that, though, it is a very original pic and not a pastiche, and it can scare the pants off you if you can get past the budget limitations of the "Shot on handicam" look.

A couple of crystal meth addicts and their redneck friend find an abandoned house deep in the woods, and use it to set up a temporary meth lab to produce the trunkload of crystal meth that will supposedly finance their escape to happier lives. As isolation and drug-induced paranoia creep in and crank up, odd things begin to happen that leave the characters and the audience stuck trying to decide if the house is really haunted or if it's all drug-induced hallucination.

There are few SPFX in the movie and the hauntings are mostly "old style", including a "pounding at the door" scene that tips its hat to "The Haunting". Think continually re-opening doors and windows, creaks, bumps, strange sounds, etc, instead of CGI ghosts and monsters.  Mercifully, this also came before the explosion of Japanese horror ripoff movies in the states and we're spared the 500th repetition of someone crawling across a ceiling in jerky staccato, or yet another pale kid with black eyes.

The actors do a great job. Unknown indie actors could have easily mucked up the depiction of the strung-out leads, but instead their disintegration is very freaky and convincing. I suspect that if one has ever had a friend or family member with drug problems, the movie might well be unwatchable. You know these people are doomed from the start, with their daydreams of "The BIG SCORE" that will fund their magical happy life in the Caribbean, but you're still oddly drawn to care about their fate as their mental gears begin to break down under stress.

This also gave me major flashbacks to my youthful days of adventuring into old, decrepit haunted houses in the woods, right down to everyone all sitting in huddles inside telling each other creepy Southern ghost stories by candlelight. There's a great scene where someone tells a, "And hanging from the handle was a bloody hook!"-type story to our increasingly twitchy, drugged-out group who begin seeing odd things in the shadows.  Eventually, paranoia takes hold and the house is locked up tight with windows boarded as our cast begins to seriously lose their oars within.

While there is very little blood, this flick will likely be too wired for some.  One of the first reviews on IMDB said that the reviewer found it so intense that they had to shut it off and take a break after the first thirty minutes. NOT a movie for anyone who gets easily wound up or freaked out. And all achieved without $100 million, Playstation graphics or gore - It's an impressive accomplishment in no-budget filmmaking.

FWIW, looking back at it, I'm struck by how much it really was the drug culture version of The Haunting. The same steady progression of events till crack-up, the same "Is it all in this character's mind?" theme, etc. Poor Eleanor never realized how lucky she was that she wasn't on crystal meth during her time at Hill House..

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Space Battleship Yamato

NetFlix Not Available
IMDB 6.3/10
My Rating: 8/10

Earth has been attacked by the alien Gamilus race and bombarded with radiation bombs, rendering the surface of the planet uninhabitable.  The surviving humans are clustered in underground cities awaiting extinction when hope comes in the form of a message from another alien world, the planet Iscandar.  Iscandar sends advanced plans for building a warp-capable ship that humans can use to travel to obtain a radiation removal device, to restore life to the ruined earth while humanity still exists.  With no space fleet remaining, the engineers secretly build their starship beneath the rotting ruin of the WW2 battleship Yamato, which must be resurrected TO SAAAAVE THE HUMAN RAAAACE! 

OK, first things first - If you're going to say, "This is just like the new Star Trek" or, "They ripped off the look of the new BSG", you need to get out of here now before I start slapping you.  NO, SB Yamato does not rip off the look and style of new BSG... BSG took much of its tone, realism, theme, and style from this original anime, which ran some 30+ years earlier.  Pardon my hostility, but I've read so many comments on sites like io9, from snarky teens and 20-somethings convinced that nothing happened in this world before the last 5-10 years, that it's left me ready to throttle the next person who says, "This whole thing is a total ripoff of Battlestar Galactica."

For "Who done what first", let's make a list:

  • Yamato was the first SF series to depict space battles as WW2 dogfights, later copied in Star Wars.
  • Long before BSG, Yamato gave us a world where the battle against the aliens was already lost and humanity was reduced to a handful of desperate survivors looking for hope in unknown space while fighting off constant attacks by their relentless enemy.
  • Yamato was first with the low tech, military battleship interiors later used by shows like BSG.
  • Yamato gave us a gigantic, round, planet-destroying battle station controlled by an evil empire, years before Star Wars.
  • Yamato gave us a battered, used hulk of a spaceship star, before BSG.
  • Yamato gave us a ship that could fire a weapon so powerful it could wipe out asteroids, enemy fleets, and even moons, long before Crusade.
  • Yamato gave us a climactic dogfight that consisted of fighters having to exploit a secret weakness in the giant alien battlestation in order to deliver a killing blow to its internal workings, before Star Wars.
  • Yamato even gave us a "cute" (Arguable, that) robot sidekick shaped like a trashcan.
Well, I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.  Suffice to say, if the look or events in the new live-action Yamato film feel familiar, or look like something you've already seen in recent popular SF media, it isn't because Yamato is copying, it's because Yamato was late to the party in getting its story made into live action cinema due to decades of rights disputes.  But now it is back, riding on the current wave of "gritty" space SF that it fits into so well.

For the rest of this review, please understand that I am a huge fan of the original anime and my view of the Yamato live action movie is not so much through rose-tinted glasses as through glasses made out of the radiant smiles of Lynda Carter and Wilma Deering.  That said, I did have a number of problems with the film, mostly relating to the uncomfortable neccessity of squashing a 26 episode anime series story down to fit into one 2:15 movie.

The Kickoff!

The old girl has never looked better, for starters:

The studio did a stunning job of creating some excellent space FX on a mere 13 million dollar budget.  Think about that again - 13 million.  That's not enough to cover the typical Hollywood star's coke and hooker fees, yet Japan got a whole 2 hour and 15 minute movie out of it.  The story starts off with the battle against the invading aliens already lost - We see the earth fleet hopelessly outclassed and forced to withdraw, and the radiation bombing that reduces the planet to a barren wasteland.  It's a hard place to start a movie... Hell, it was an astonishing place to start a cartoon, back in 1977.

Let's rewind for a moment.  It's the late 70's, and your popcorn-addict writer was still living in the land of the Saturday morning cartoon gala.  The stuff that the US networks fed us was caca - Sure, there were some fun shows tucked in here and there, but for every 1st season Scooby Doo there were 10 shows like the Superfriends and Wonderbug.  US animation was crap and American kid's cartoons were dumbed down to the IQ level of a Tea Party Xtreme Wrestling expo.  Suddenly, into this maelstrom of mediocrity, my friends and I started noticing these funky Japanese cartoons - Or as my mother liked to call them, "The ones full of people with big eyes".  Starblazers didn't treat us like infants, oh no...  It grabbed us by the neck right off and showed us an earth that was dying of poison, with one year until the human race would be extinct, and all we had going for us was an ancient battleship and a crew willing to take an insane gamble against an invincible enemy - Fly across the galaxy further than any human has ever gone to get a radiation removal device from a mysterious alien woman, and get back before the last humans are dead.

OK, the ship was crazy... This was the big stumbling block for many, and at the same time it was symbolic of the sort of, "Holy crap, I've never seen anything like that before!" chutzpah that these new Japanese cartoons were introducing to us (Nobody called them anime, that didn't come till 15 years later).  A WW2 battleship flying around in space looked insane...  but awesome.  To this day I maintain that the Yamato is the best looking spaceship ever, far cooler than any version of the Enterprise or the Galactica.  And there was a reason for it, too - With no fleet and no space bases, the last ship had to be built in secret, in a way that the watching Gamilons would not suspect, so the entire thing was constructed under the rotting hulk of the original Battleship Yamato, now exposed by the dried-up ocean.  The launch of the Yamato remains one of the coolest scenes ever, and the new movie did it right (Skip to 1minute 40 if you're impatient):

It took 3 episodes of the anime to get to the launch.  Can you imagine?  Three episodes of build-up.  Modern kids can't sit still for fifteen minutes without squirming, if they don't have something being thrown in their faces constantly.  The ongoing plot and the gradual development of the characters was a wholly new thing to us, at a time when the Superfriends were lecturing the 34th set of stupid teens about the Darwinian hazards of choosing to play in the bear cave.  The full story ran a year and it had everything that American animation of the time did not have - Depth, pain, insight, character growth, and violence...  Holy shit, a lot of violence.  Superman was too noble to punch Lex Luthor for threatening a city, but the Yamato crew had no compunctions about blowing away an entire enemy fleet because they knew it was them or us.  But beyond that, it was the sneaky subplot that grabbed me as a growing boy - The ongoing schism between young hotshot hero Kodai/Wildstar and the father figure captain that he resents.  As much as anything, Yamato was the story about every young man learning to understand his father and what it takes to really become an adult.

So!  The original series was an epic, with each episode covering a different challenge for the Yamato crew as they traveled to Iscandar, fighting the Gamilons every step of the way.  The new movie does its best, but even at over two hours, it doesn't have a prayer of delivering the depth and gradual development of the original, and this brings me to its first problem, it's too fast.  The filmmakers wisely choose to jettison most of the original storylines in favor of telling four complete stories from the best individual episodes, and this is a plus and a minus - I'm happy with the four stories they picked and I'm glad that they took the time to tell each properly, but this meant leaving out a LOT of build-up and connecting tissue, and it makes the film strangely paced.  It's a bit rollercoasterey, with event-action-climax happening in repeating sequences throughout the runtime.  This stitched-together assembly makes for an unwieldy movie experience.

The casting and the look was spot-on:

Yuki/Nova is changed, however - Instead of the demure nurse and love interest of the series, we get a sullen Yuki who is a hotshot pilot, and this "Starbucking" of her character is probably the one element that really is ripped off from current SF fare.

It moves fast, and you have to jump on and try your best to hang on.  I will admit I followed far more of it on a second viewing, particularly the strategy of the final divebombing assault on the Gamilus cavern base.  It's weird to say, but in this the live action movie actually feels a bit *less* mature than the cartoon - Everything is rushed up and before you know it the Yamato is launching and then WHOAH, where did that Kodai & Yuki relationship come from?  And then, crap, Kodai in charge and suddenly we're at Iscandar and there's a climax happening.  In this, it totally lacks the feeling of an epic voyage from the original... There's no "Homer in Space" about it, it's a 2 hour SF action movie.  I suppose this is not a bad thing, as I doubt anyone today would be willing to sit through a 13 hour long Yamato movie.  Except me.  I can't help but wish they'd gone the LOTR route at least, and split the story into two or three different films.

My other complaint is the change in the Gamilons, from blue-skinned human types to generic modern CGI aliens.  I've read various message board posts from people saying that the blue-skins would have looked stupid, that that dreaded "today's audience" wouldn't have accepted them, etc.  However, with the switch to an inhuman aesthetic goes one of the best arcs of the series - The continual taunting and plotting and politics of Gamilus leader Dessler as he rode his Yamato obsession into apocalyptic madness that cost him everything.  Instead, we get waves of these Playstation-looking things:

Mostly what they do is show up the limits of the budget in some of the few scenes that are less than impressive.  They also remove the element of personal antipathy  It's no longer Dessler and the Yamato crew getting more and more pissed at each other, it's now just an endless wave of generic computer bugs.  I'd have loved to see this smug bastard on the big screen:

However, I can't dock them too hard for this because the presence of an active enemy character would have done even more extreme things to the pacing and length of the film.  Essentially, they do the best with what they have and make it work in two hours, trimming as needed, and in this case the blue-skinned Gamilons are our Tom Bombadil.

Also, I have to mention the one utterly glaringly god-awful decision of the movie - To employ a Steven Tyler faux Aerosmith song on the trailers and over the closing credits.  WHAT WERE THEY THINKING???

So with all this said, did I like it?  Hell yes!  I loved it.  My wife even loved it, and she never saw the original and had no connection to the anime, nor any nostalgia effect.  This should make the filmmakers happier than anything else, because they successfully pulled off the terrifying task of creating a story that would appease fans of the original AND be accessible and enjoyable to someone who had no clue what this flying space boat was all about.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a hell of a ride nonetheless, and I can give this one a definite thumbs up.  May the Yamato keep on rising from the dead for generations to come!

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hero at Large

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 6/10
My Rating: 6.5/10

A struggling actor with a good heart lands a role promoting the superhero film "Captain Avenger".  When he finds himself foiling a late night stickup at a corner grocery, he is drawn by the idea of being a real world costumed hero but quickly discovers it's more dangerous than imagined, and that comicbook morality doesn't mesh well with real world politics.   

This is a mostly-forgotten film starring the late John Ritter, fresh off his Three's Company years at the time.  In many ways, it's the forerunner of today's stream of gritty "real life" superhero movies like Kick Ass and Watchmen, movies founded on the idea of, "What would it REALLY be like to put on a costume and go out to fight bad guys?"  While Kick Ass answered this question with lots of gory, OTT violence, Hero at Large was a much gentler film even though our hero's antics nearly get him into as much lethal trouble.

It's a simple formula pic and it didn't do very well when it was released - I recall watching it back in 1980 and being disappointed because it was a "John Ritter movie" and we expected it to be a wacky comedy full of sitcom slapstick instead of the largely serious adventure/romance/vigilante film it is.  Approached with the right expectations, it's a surprisingly enjoyable and heartening flick.  Eternally-struggling New York actor Steve Nichols lands a job dressing up in costume as "Captain Avenger", a popular comicbook star getting his own big-screen movie.  Steve's job is to turn up at theaters, sign autographs, talk to fans, etc.  While the rest of his busload of fellow "Captain Avengers" loathe the job and feel ridiculous, Steve embraces it with enthusiasm and enjoys the chance to personify the hero of lots of children.

One evening after a long day of appearances, he finds himself in a corner grocer that's being robbed.  He overpowers the crooks while wearing his costume and the story becomes a media sensation, with the whole city stoked up to hear more about the mysterious masked hero who saved the kindly old shopkeepers.

Instead of being a comedy, the movie follows a fairly dramatic path from here, alternating between Steve's attempts to romance his beautiful next door neighbor and his internal debate over what to do with his sudden Captain Avenger fame.  Viewers looking to see loads of KickAss-style ultraviolence will be disappointed, since the bulk of the film is about the choices Steve makes instead of his outings in costume.  He does make further attempts to live the role of the hero and is promptly shot by real bullets, discovering quickly that armed criminals are a lot more dangerous than they seem on the comic page.  Meanwhile, genre conventions are further undermined by how easily city officials are able to discover the real identity of their new superhero and start working to make his popularity work for them.  Eventually Steve is conned into a faked crimebusting encounter that's dismantled easily by an investigative reporter (Remember when we used to have those, before they just started reading out the White House press briefings?).  Things go bad, leading to a tense climax where Steve and the city have to decide what constitutes a real world hero.

It's a good film.  I enjoyed it much, much more in my 40's than I did at 14 - It's a surprisingly mature film for its subject matter and I personally thought it was far better than current flicks like Kick Ass in how it handled the whole "real life superhero" concept.  One element that made me sadly nostalgic was the basic premise - Modern films treat the idea of people putting on superhero costumes as being dangerously insane.  The Kick Ass kid is an idiot who reads too many comicbooks and thinks he'll be cool by becoming a superhero.  The characters in Watchmen dress up by turns because they are amoral thugs, psychopaths, or sexual fetishists.  The closest modern film to Hero at Large is Defendor, which operates on the concept that only a mentally-retarded person would try this.  Hero at Large, by contrast, gives us one of the few cases where a normal guy decides to put on a costume and be a hero out of the goodness of his nature.  John Ritter plays this so well it's completely believable - Steve Nichols is naive, sure, but his fumbling attempts to be a real world superhero stem from a desire to help and inspire others, not out of mental imbalance or just plain crazy.  It's a bit sad to think that this theme would never fly today...  It would almost certainly be seen as "too wholesome" in this age of grim and gritty comicbook movies.  This is ironic because when it was released, it was too serious - People wanted Jack Tripper falling down the steps, not a thoughtful examination of the pitfalls of a costumed hero.

It's a corny film when all is said and dine, but that's not a bad thing.  You'll end up rooting for Steve in a way that I never did for Dave Lizewski, and unlike KA, Steve actually manages to make the world a tiny bit better without leaving a trail of wholesale bloody slaughter in his wake.  Worth seeing!

Enhanced by Zemanta