Sunday, October 3, 2010

Mad Monster Party? - 1967

While the rest of the USA typically greets Autumn in September, here in the desert October is commonly when we see our first break from blistering summertime heat and the onset of Fall. We welcome the shift to more stylish wardrobes, days with the windows open again, and most of all for me, Halloween! I recently had my first chance to earmark an evening of watching horror and Halloween inspired movies, and Mad Monster Party? (1967) was one of our choices.

As it was for me, if it's your first time seeing this, visually you'll find it instantly recognizable as another Rankin/Bass Animagic feature; yes, the same folks who brought you claymation Christmas classics such as Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Again as I was, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised at how little this resembles those classics otherwise!

I believe there are a few reasons for this, and first is the writing. Penned by Mad Magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman, the story has quite a few elements and dialogue consistent with a slightly more risqué, adult tone that is nonetheless still suitable for child audiences. While sitting through the more saccharine movies of this type during the holidays often seems more a duty, this was decidedly less droll and much more fun with this element included!

The voice acting in this feature was an absolute delight, topped off by the inimitable horror monster master himself, Boris Karloff. This being one of his last handful of film efforts, it seems he and everyone involved tried their best to shine as well as have a good time with it. Allen Swift handles the greatest portion of the characters, but is particularly noteworthy as the spot on Peter Lorre inspired character, Yetch. The busty, Ginger Grant (of Gilligan's Island) derived Francesca is voiced by Gale Garnett, and we get the extra treat of Phyllis Diller as The Monster's Mate for plenty of campy comic punch lines! I found it strange that was her character's billing, because it's more a Bride of Frankenstein a la Madeline Kahn character. Perhaps it was a copyright issue, similar to their naming the obviously King Kong inspired ape character, "It".

If you saw this feature in it's previously released low quality cuts, I think you'll find the visual quality of the DVD release is stunningly good! In a perfect Hollywood story, a newly unearthed, pristine 35mm print was found for the digital remastering. The claymation seems particularly well done, with much more detail than we typically see from these features and surprising lighting effects throughout. In counterpoint to this, I was also a bit surprised by the many times you can see the strings and wires in the claymation; I wonder if it wasn't because the filmmakers were counting on the lower quality presentation of celluloid to hide this. They certainly couldn't have foreseen that the digital remastering processes of today might reproduce their efforts in such crystal clear quality. At any rate, I didn't find this distracting and I think it actually adds a bit of charm to it all!

I almost neglected to mention the musical score. Though not hugely remarkable throughout here, as in all Rankin/Bass holiday productions; it adds ably to the fun. Particularly enjoyable was the love song "Never Was A Love Like Ours", as performed by the Francesca character.

Finally, I think a good portion of the fun in this movie comes from the subject itself. Most of our Christmas stories are fairly one dimensional as well as religion based; I imagine this makes them difficult and risky to draw any inspiration or humor from. Horror monster movies on the other hand, are fertile ground for humor and camp; even Karloff The Uncanny was known to readily participate in parodies of his signature characters.

While this was the first time I've seen this movie, I won't be surprised to hear many say they've seen it just as often as they've seen the other Rankin/Bass features. It comes from growing up, more or less, out here in the desolate West, I suppose! Even so, if you haven't seen the DVD remaster, you're in for a treat and I think you'll find this is a fun way to kick off your October Samhain festivities!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - 2009

One of these days I'm gonna have to watch and review something I don't already know I'm going to love. This film wasn't it!

I've been looking forward to this movie hitting DVD since I saw the release trailers. I'm a Python fan, and by extension all of Terry Gilliam's movies. Gilliam himself stated this movie was something of a compendium for him of his own work, so if you are looking for a departure from his brand of imagery and fantasy, this isn't it either. In fact, I can see it being said that it's a bit redundant in that respect and on a basic level it is. Python fans will nonetheless rejoice.

I've heard it said that Gilliam's past movies have been about phases of life; 'Time Bandits' was childhood, 'Brazil' was adulthood, and 'Adventures of Baron Munchausen' was old age. This would indeed be Gillium in compendium. You'll also find plenty of standard Python imagery, much of it wonderfully wrought in CG; from British bobbies in drag to surreal balloon heads floating through CG scenery.

Getting past this, there are a number of things that make this movie special. This is the first film since 'Munchausen (1988)'where Gillium storyboarded the entire movie himself, explaining his ownership of the movie's visual style. It's also from an original story he co-wrote, with no basis on existing screenplay or text.

Arguably the most unique feature of this movie is that it was Heath Ledger's last picture. The production and everyone involved with it were affected by his loss. This influenced the film in many ways, including an alteration to the story line to allow 3 different actors to complete his part; this actually becomes a plot device in the film. It was heartwarming to learn that the three actors donated all their pay for this movie to insure the financial future of Ledger's daughter.

This substitution was an artful idea; unfortunately it's execution exposes the biggest flaw in the film. Perhaps it's the number of these elements that clouds the idea, but several of the plot devices receive no explanation or follow through at all. Indeed at times the actors themselves appear as befuddled by some of them as the viewer will likely be. This lends a rambling incoherence to the story that doesn't really get linked in any way to anything. Ultimately the film is about the power of imagination; so it could be said that this incoherence is an inherent quality of imagination. It's just a bit overdone.

Still, nearly everything about the film is a delight. It's wonderfully cast, and I felt one of the most engaging parts was played by Tom Waits. As Ole' Scratch, he is a classic master of trickery but with his own gambling vice. This eventually is the undoing of his scheme with Parnassus, but it's hard to tell if this wasn't part of his grander scheme, I'll leave it to you to decide what that might be.

Surprisingly, I didn't find that Heath Ledger had the most interesting character. We'll all be left to wonder whether that might be different if he had been able to complete the role.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Head In The Clouds-2004

I'll have to heavily qualify my review of this film; at 12 tissues it touches on too many personal experiences and predilections for me not to like it. The big reviewers nearly all panned it, primarily for it's admittedly hackneyed storyline and cliched treatment of the era. But I think they were a bit harsh about it and seemed to completely miss some genuinely admirable aspects of the film.

Not enough could be said about the cast! Charlize Theron is incredible, her range is expansive and her performance powerful. Her incredible seductiveness and beauty in this film stands in stark contrast to her appearance in 'Monster', and amplifies the effect of both performances. Penelope Cruz is heartwarmingly beautiful; it's pretty clear the spotlight was reserved for Charlize, but Cruz holds her own extremely well. Stuart Townsend was criticized for not being enough of a leading man to pull this off, but I disagree. I feel he portrayed just the right mix of sensitivity to make his characters capacity for love and political conscience believable. Perhaps he doesn't have the hunkiness of some other actors but he's no slouch in the department. The secondary cast is equally adept and believable.

Since when did Hollywood ever shy away from recycling era's and themes to tell a story? The Great War has been covered so many times in so many veins that it 's hard to see any way of not looking a bit cliche' when using it in a movie. But it's significance is enormous, and I think this film helped portray little known aspects of it's history very ably. In particular, the hedonism of the era, the civil war in Spain and the role of WW1 in the play of events as Hitler capitalized on the psyches of the loser nations from that war. Most high school history and most people are blithely unaware of the significance of ethnic tensions in Spain; being of Basque origin I can tell you that it has had plenty of impact on the region and by extension Europe as a whole. How can you fault a film that does this accurately and brings humanity to it, however unbelievable the plot line might be?

Besides history, the plot line itself covers something dear to my heart. The magic involved when three people can form a deep and loving bond together is so very rare; I can see how reviewers might find it unbelievable. But it can happen, and it's loss is just as tragic as it's creation is beautiful. In my experience, that creation requires a strong character at it's center that holds the unit together, and Charlize portrayed this absolutely perfectly. I was too young to hold this role when the tryst happened for me, but now that I've matured a bit I can see myself doing so and I found myself identifying with Gilda very strongly. There is a surrender of ego that goes on amongst all the principles, it allows the bond to last and I thought that was also portrayed very well. Random tragedy always seems to intervene to destroy these type of things, as though their existence is too exquisite to be permitted to last. The film's portrayal of this was admittedly a bit trite, Mia's loss was just too convenient. In my story, the permanent and tragic loss of one of us to drug use ramped the tissue factor of the movie tremendously. The loss of the first member takes away the magic and dooms the entire thing.

Finally, the accuracy of the sets, costumes and locations is incredible. I found it notable that IMDB's treatment of the film noted no goofs or historical inaccuracy's; but I'm afraid that may be because it's poor reviews prevented enough history buffs from seeing it. So forget the reviewers treatment and give it a whirl!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Waking Life - 2001

My love for movies has a touch of schizophrenia to it I think; because I have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood and the whole movie making machine. I've had this attitude even before attending classes on cinema and studying the industry a bit, so it's not simply a matter of familiarity breeding contempt; though there is fertile ground for contempt there. The most likely thing I can attribute this to is a disdain for falseness or pretense. The lies and falseness of many celebrities, the scratch your back mentality of movie financing, and the pretentious nature of many films and the festivals that host them. I feel like a bigoted crack addict at times. I love the product that comes out of the movie industry, but I don't care for how we often come by it.

So I was set to dislike this film, I had only looked it up because of my love for animation. It had the earmarks of a pretentious film, as it professes to have no real theme or plot while exploring philosophical ideas about dreams and the purpose of life. Too often in films this means somebody pushing their own ideas upon us. Add to this the use of rotoscoping to achieve the animation; I suspected somebody had found a new toy to play with and was foisting their experiment with this tool as a film gimmick.

If you need a movie to have a concrete plot and a clearly defined meaning, this isn't your cup of tea. In fact you may be left with the notion there was no meaning to the film at all, because it doesn't try to push one on you. I think the pretention I suspected is present after all, but I had to look for it and it's a quality of a couple of the characters not the film itself. Instead, questions are posed for you and you are invited to largely find your own meanings and answers. You won't find a neat little package of someone elses answers, and if you are at all inquisitive about some of the ideas brought up you won't find your experience complete when the movie is done.

The DVD extras prompted me to learn more about the producer, director, and art director. I learned that the rotoscoping technique they had developed was not in fact new to them. In watching the movie, the technique is absolutely essential to the story, the dreamlike quality it lends is almost it's own character in the film.

SPOILER!! One of the sequences in the film involves a man dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself ablaze, in protest of man's inability to affect real change in the face of authority. This is a reference to the public self immolation of the Buddhist monk Quang Duc, in protest of the US backed South Vietnamese government, their persecution of the Buddhist religion and grossly overt favoritism of Roman Catholicism. Having read Stanley Karnow's Vietnam-A History I was familiar with this and was prompted to revisit the history of the event; Wikipedia gives an appropriately gruesome account of the incident. This allusion is appropriate on many levels, especially pointing out our interconnectedness and directly refuting the powerlessness we fear.

The movie is chock-a-block with references like this, and a cornucopia of unique quotes; I'm sure to be annoying my friends with many of them soon!

On the surface, this may strike you as just another exposition of how we are all a molecule in the fingernail of some other immensely more significant being. But at the very least it lends food for thought in an entertaining fashion. After all, aren't we all just the sum of our thoughts?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Georgia Rule-2007

I have to admit to having a grudge against movies with actors who lead less than positive examples in their personal life; as well as actors who unduly use their celebrity to irresponsibly push their politics. I feel that whomever is making a movie tacitly approves of the actors they employ; either in whole or in part.

But there occasionally are movies that can make me overlook and in some cases soften my overall outlook about the actors. Sorry Lindsay, that would not be you in this case. Some of her actions in the movie are all too similar to her real-life irresponsibility and come dangerously close to being unbelievable as a result. But in Jane Fonda's case I'd have to say I'm taking a different look at Hanoi Jane. What a surprise to learn that she is a strong opponent of gender stereotyping, as well as a supporter of the first all-transsexual cast production of The Vagina Monologues.

I sometimes wonder if there are ANY families that are wholly untouched by sexual abuse, either of children or adults. My own family history is rife with it; my ex-wife's family and those of many of my friends are also affected by it. If you've been a victim or part of a family where it's happened, I don't think you can walk away from this movie without an appreciation for the exposure it gives to the subject.

I don't think Lohan's acting had much to do with it, it's the script instead that gave the movie authenticity and power. It very ably shows why untangling the lies and deceit inherent in any child abuse is sometimes so difficult, but usually is just a matter of looking at who stands to lose the most if their lies are revealed. Do not let Lohan's real-life reputation fool you, most of her character's actions in this movie are pretty authentic in my experience.

If you are a victim, directly or indirectly of sexual abuse, don't watch this alone. Watch it with your parents!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fritz The Cat-1972

Animated films are a weakness of mine, especially in the style of Max Fleisher through Robert Crumb, to Richard Elfman.

The Heavy Metal movies are also a favorite of mine, and in hindsight seem to owe quite a bit to this era of animation.

"The 60's? Happy times, heavy times...."

The lead in vocal says it all about the spirit of this film. Somewhat factual, always naively whimsical; it strikes me that as early as 1972, people were pining for the hedonism and high mindedness of the supposed decade of love.

The X-rating this film garnered at the time is a bit laughable, and as director Ralph Bakshi has pointed out, "Now they do as much on "The Simpsons" (1989) as I got an X rating for Fritz the Cat." Yet I still would not have the kiddies watching this ;)

As anachronistic and hypocritical the hero might be; I found myself first crying about the ugliness the film exposes about the era, then laughing at the "why can't we all just drop the crap and have a love-in" ending.

If you've ever just heard about this film and wondered if it's worth the time, I'd tell you it's good fun. If you are an animation fan, I'd say it's a must see.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Strange as it might seem, I don't like most trans related films. Very few are written from a transpersons perspective; and damn few less even have any transpeople in them. Maybe that's 'cause most are about how the poor confused transperson or their lover ended up dead? Gee, there's some motivation for ya!

I've mentioned this movie in blogs before but given my spiffy new soapbox here I'm throwing it out again. I think anyone with the least interest in anything transgender needs to see this movie, Beautiful Boxer. It's by far the best movie with a transgender subject line I have ever seen and almost totally refutes what I said above about trans related movies. Parinya (Nong-Toom's fem name) actually has a cameo in the film. She has since moved on to become a model and well known actress in Thai television and cinema.

It's the story of a Muay-Thai kickboxer, Nong-Toom, who makes her transition while still competing in kickboxing. It's a foreign movie with subtitles, but it's one of those that will make you forget you are reading subtitles. There is one error in the movie caused by the Thai-English subtitle translation; she is referred to as being a transvestite, though she is transexual.

Most MTF TS's have a similar story, but her story so closely parallels mine! I strongly identify with her experience, the chief parallel having been my military service. Her realization of self and childhood experiences are very similar to mine.

Even outside of the transgender subject matter, this is a fabulous movie, the scenery and cinematography are wonderful. The actor portraying Toom is himself a Muay Thai boxer, and did a wonderful job.