Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Highlander

Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Written by Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, and Larry Ferguson. Starring Christopher Lambert (Connor ‘The Highlander’ Macleod/ Russell Edwin Nash), Clancy Brown (Victor Kruger/The Kurgan), and Sean Connery (Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez).
Bottom line: I am baffled as to why this movie is so famous let alone why it started a franchise.

We learn The Highlander's story from Sean Connery who plays, I kid you not, a 2000 year old Egyptian/Spaniard named Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez. That right there should give you an indication of the caliber The Highlander. Anyway, the story is that there exist “Immortals” who roam the Earth hunting each other. They can’t be killed unless they are beheaded. At some arbitrary time in history (which turns out to be 1984), they will be drawn to a far off country to partake in what’s called “The Gathering” where they will fight for “The Prize” which only one can have hence the famous line “There can only be one.”

I found the bizarre transitions somewhat entertaining. That is, they are entertaining in the way a car crash is entertaining; it is more of a morbid curiosity than joy. A shot of the bottom of a lake in Scotland circa 1500, for example, wipes to the bottom of a fish tank. To signal a flashback to WWII the image on the screen shatters with the sound of cannon fire.

In terms of acting, we have three main characters, The Highlander (Lambert), Sean Connery, and Victor Kruger (Brown). I've never been a big Christopher Lambert fan particularly because of his laugh. It makes me feel like kind of a bad person if I dislike the guy because of his laugh, but have you heard it?! It always sounds forced and what is more unfortunate is that he laughs at inappropriate times throughout the movie. It reminded me of Tommy Wassau's laughing in The Room.

I included Sean Connery as a character instead of his ludicrous character name because he's just being Sean Connery in a fluffy red suit. I have a soft spot in my heart for Sean Connery so I'm down for his role as The Highlander's instructor. I never grew emotionally attached to his character, but I could say that about everything in this film.

Victor Kruger is “the Ultimate Warrior,” according to Sean Connery. He is a Russian who has traveled across the world hunting Immortals. Clancy Brown's baritone voice fits the character of Kruger perfectly. I believe one of my favorite scenes in the movie is Kruger's modern day entrance. He is listening to the radio while driving in a 1975 Cadillac Coup DeVille. A reporter is commenting on a series of recent decapitations saying, “Police currently have no suspects.” “I know who it is,” Kruger bellows. He proceeds turn on a cassette of Queen's “Gimme the Prize.” If ever there was a scene in a movie that characterized the 80's. Now, even though he fits the role, there isn't much Brown can do to salvage the movie. His dialog, much like the rest of the dialog, is lacking.

Now, I found Kruger and Connery entertaining but they aren't enough to save this movie. Cheesy special effects are all fine and dandy, in moderation, but there has to be something to balance it out; The Highlander's choreography is on par with some of Star Trek's fight scenes. The cinematography isn't very appealing either. Most of the odd camera angles seem unnecessary and, without any sort of justification, they are more distracting than anything.

Overall, The Highlander is a very 80's fantasy action movie. Would I recommend it? No, not really. The cinematography is blah, as is the acting and dialog. When it comes down to your Friday night movie, there can only be don't let it be The Highlander.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Shonen Merikensakku (The Brass Knuckle Boys)

Written and directed by Kankurô Kudô. Starring Aoi Miyazaki (Kanna Kurita), Yûichi Kimura (Haruo), Ryô Katsuji (Masaru), Tomorowo Taguchi (Jimmy), and Hiroki Miyake (Young).

Bottom line: I really wanted to like it and it had the potential to be solid but The Shonen Merikensakku ultimately became a series of stupid jokes and with a disappointing punchline.

Kanna Kurita (Miyazaki) is a young talent scout for a record label in Japan. She stumbles upon a video of a punk band called The Shonen Merikensakku (The Brass Knuckle Boys). By “punk” I mean Sex Pistols not Sum 41. They are singing a song that sounds like “Surfin' to pass the time.” She shows it to her boss, fully expecting to be fired. Her less than successful contract will soon be ending anyway so she plans on helping run her father's sushi shop. To her dismay, before starting the record label, her boss was actually in a punk rock band. She is ordered to manage a comeback tour. She reluctantly accepts but soon realizes that the video clip is twenty five years old. The rockers are old and tired (compared to the youths in the video, that is). The Shonen Merikensakku is the adventure of Kanna and the band coming together to discover (or rediscover) themselves and punk rock.

Throughout the movie Kanna documents their travels with a Sony HD camera (more on the product placement later). Elements of her videos, like interviews, give the film a This is Spinal Tap-vibe but this isn't a documentary or a mockumentary (a documentary parody).

The best part, and frankly, one of the few positive things about this movie is the catchy music. “Surfin' to pass the time” is a really cool song and it is played throughout the movie. We learn that the guitarist, Haruo (Kimura), and vocalist, Jimmy (Taguchi), first started in the music industry as teen idols (a category of boy bands). Accompanying this information, we watch a segment of one of their music videos. In the words of Shonen Merikensakku's original manager: “There wasn't a word for 'dorky' at the time but it was dorky.” It is short and silly and illustrates why these guys wanted to break away and do punk. My major qualm with the musical genre is that the songs are often too long. In Shonen Merikensakku, I actually wished they were longer. If only the rest of the movie was as good as the music.

As I write this, I am trying to decide on what to comment on first: the silliness, the toilet humor or the miserable ending. The movie is full of toilet humor and fart jokes which are irrelevant and distracting. At one point, for example, Kanna establishes a rule that if someone farts that person is fined 500 yen. That's comedy gold, folks... The acting overall is way too silly for my tastes. By throwing the sophomoric humor all over, it's like the movie is compensating for something. Compensating for what I don't know, but whatever it is, it isn't worth it.

The art style is fine but it feels a little forced. It's like a lot of elements are put together to fit the definition of punk:
Alright, we need spiked hair.”
Studded coat.”
Noisy music.”

The most offensive thing about Shonen Merikensakku is the ending, mind yourself of spoilers for this part. I usually try not talk about endings but this one made me so mad, I just have to. It reminded me of that Gordon Levitt movie Premium Rush (the one where he is a bicycle courier in New York). The final lines were something like, “Someday I'll have a suit and tie job but not today! Today, I'm riding my bike.” The idealistic, romantic attitude of the movie is dashed with this single line. Why couldn't he say, “I will always ride my bike because that's what I love to do.” Disney's Brave pulled similar shenanigans. The strong-willed, independent princess concluded with the sentiment, “Someday I'll get married...but not until I'm ready!” Why does she have to say that? She could've easily said, “I'm not getting married today and I might not ever want but that's OK because I am being me.” It's like the movies are saying, being young and hopeful and energetic is all fine and dandy until you grow up. When you grow up, you have to put away your little toys and dreams to toil away until you die.

The whole reason Kanna accepts the job to manage the band is because she is making a living doing what she really likes. She doesn't want to run her father's sushi shop; she wants to tour with a band. In the final moments of the movie, we see Kanna working in her father's sushi shop. She runs out the door saying that she has a gig. We cut to the band starting their set with Kanna eagerly watching in the audience. By working part-time in the sushi shop and part-time as the band's manager, her passion is being relegated to the position of hobby. It gets better. The band is playing and they begin fighting each other (fighting each other is their shtick). The bass player swings his guitar at the guitarist but accidentally hits Jimmy, knocking him out. On Jimmy's butt is a patch that says “END.” Some pop music fades in and the movie ends. Twenty Five years ago, during their final performance, a similar blow to the head paralyzed Jimmy and, in effect, disbanding the group. With this, the movie is saying Kanna couldn't even manage the punk group as a passion! It is time for her to grow up and work in her father's sushi shop. After this entire two hour movie, that's what you're giving me, The Shonen Merikensakku? I'm not buying it.

Speaking of buying, there is an odd amount of product placement in this movie. Sony was obviously a major sponsor because we have clear shots of several Sony HD Digital Cameras and Kanna's Sony VAIO laptop. I understand that product placement is everywhere, but I prefer it if it was subtle.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend The Shonen Merikensakku. The music is solid but it couldn't possibly salvage the movie as a whole and just thinking about the ending and the stupid humor makes me mad. Pass on this and check out Burst City or This is Spinal Tap.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Burst City

Directed by Gakuryu Ishii. Written by Jûgatsu Toi (based on the novel by). Starring Michirou Endo, Shigeru Izumiya, Takanori Jinnai.

Bottom line: This is a really really strange movie but I find its enthusiasm kind of endearing.

The premise of the story is vague and there seems to be a couple different plot lines. First, a pimp and one of his girls are trying to get out of the slums. He pimps her out to a crime boss whose into S&M. That boss and his syndicate are trying to destroy the slums in a crooked construction scheme. For labor, the syndicate enslaves the city’s population of mentally disabled homeless. Meanwhile, two rival gangs/bands drag race, fight, and crash each other’s gigs to dominate the punk rock scene. The rivals are also fighting against the police because, well, you know, it’s the police. 

Burst City uses a lot of shaky hand-held camera-work. Not because they were going for some aesthetic effect but because it’s cheap. In much the same way, there is an overall lack of lighting. Burst City jumps between plot lines and characters spending little time establishing either. The combination results in a movie that has the potential to be very confusing, if not incoherent.

In all honesty, I’ve seen this one and a half times. A few years ago, I attempted to watch it but I was too sleepy. I couldn’t concentrate. This time I watched it on a flight from Baton Rouge to Lincoln. Unfortunately, I was a little sleepy this time too. I zoned out for just a minute and when I zoned back in, some character (I didn’t know who) was killed (somehow) by someone (probably the syndicate) and, in response, the two rival gangs started fighting each other. The character was never mentioned again so I don’t think it was that important.

80’s Japanese Sci-fi Punk Rock Musical, need I say more?” I wanted that to be my bottom line but I thought it might be a little misleading. Sometimes it can be fun to get together with some friends, get some pizza, and put on a low budget movie. But when you do that, you ought to choose a movie that is easy to watch. After all, the focus is hanging out with friends. This won’t work if you try it with Burst City. It may just be a little too much to simply throw on the TV. That said, I give it a 3.5/4 because of its spirit.

From what I’ve read, Burst City was created by a couple punk bands who wanted to put out a movie featuring their music. The film’s potential shortcomings are necessary evils when you consider this motivation. They didn’t have the budget for smooth sophisticated cinematography or lighting but so what? They wanted to make a movie and they did it. It also helps that the music is awesome.

After watching this movie, I got into a punk rock mood so I re-watched the big budget, mainstream, Brass Knuckle Boys which is about a punk band from the 80’s reuniting and rediscovering punk. Speaking of Brass Knuckle Boys, looking over my posts, it seems I never wrote a review about it. I will post that soon as well. Anyway, I am working on a post the compares and contrasts the depiction of punk rock in Burst City and Brass Knuckle Boys. In the meantime, I would recommend Burst City particularly if you are a fan of punk rock; it is a cool movie.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davis, Alex Cox. Starring Johnny Depp (Raoul Duke) and Benicio Del Toro (Dr. Gonzo).

Bottom line: Well done and very trippy movie.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the story about journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo. Duke is on an assignment to report on a big motorcycle race held outside of Las Vegas. The two decide to make the trip a drug fueled journey to search for the American Dream.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the adaptation of the novel of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson, if you aren’t familiar, was the Rolling Stone journalist responsible for inventing “Gonzo Journalism” which focuses on the experience of an event rather than event itself as in the case of traditional journalism. The product of Gonzo journalism is something of a stream of consciousness: half fact, half fiction.

This is a really rather grotesque movie and, quite honestly, I didn’t really like it. At the same time, it was quite a good movie. That sounds contradictory. If it was a pretty good movie, why wouldn’t I like it? Well, the guys in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are taking an obscene amount of drugs. It’s a trip that might very well kill them. It isn’t a happy experience and the movie illustrates that well particularly through the cinematography.

The acting in this film is really good. I was initially turned off because I saw Johnny Depp acting like Captain Jack Sparrow or the Mad Hatter or Tonto and I for one am sick of drunken Keith Richards. But this is the first movie that he ever acted this way. With that in mind, I’ll let it pass. And after watching some interviews with Hunter S. Thompson, I found Depp’s impression spot on. Benecio Del Toro’s performance as Dr. Gonzo is stellar. The pair jump between the effects of the drugs seamlessly as naturally as if one drug wears off to be replaced by another.

Throughout Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas we never really know what is true and what is a drug induced hallucination. You can say this type of thing about lot’s of movies but here it transcends the movie itself. When I said that Thompson’s work is half fact and half fiction, I really meant that we can’t really take very much of it as “fact”. I always thought Fear and Loathing was about Hunter S. Thompson and his friend going to Vegas but, really, it is about the invented character, Duke, going to Vegas. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Hunter S. Thompson so I watched a 1970’s or ‘80’s BBC documentary about him. The documentary maker, like so many of Thompson’s fans, confused Thompson with Duke. The filmmaker even took Thompson the Vegas hoping to see the cult hero in action. Thompson then spoke about this tendency. When he is invited to speak at a university, are they hoping to hear Raoul Duke or Hunter S. Thompson? I originally thought that the premise, a motorcycle race, was the “fact”. I made the mistake of reading fiction as “non-motorcycle race” instead of “everything.” The identity of Raoul Duke, the film’s narrator, adds another layer of fiction to the film; even though Depp looks and sounds like Thompson, he is Raoul Duke.

To add another layer of uncertainty, consider the marketing campaign for this film. According to an interview I heard, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas focused heavily on TV spots and the majority of them featured Cameron Diaz even though she's in the movie for about a minute. It feels like the truth of this movie is muddled into fiction on every level; from the story to the marketing, nothing is reliable.

Would I recommend Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? You might want to pass, for the time being, if you are looking for something light and fun, but other sure; it is a weird and disconcerting movie but enthralling.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Around the World in 80 Days

Directed by Michael Anderson Written by James Poe (screenplay), John Farrow (screenplay), S.J. Perelman (screenplay), and Jules Verne (novel). Starring David Niven (Phileas Fogg), Cantinflas (Passepartout), and Finlay Currie (Andrew Stewart).

Bottom line: Around The World in 80 Days is rather long but colorful. I could see it playing in the background of a little party.

Around the World in 80 Days is the 1956 adaptation of the Jules Verne novel of the same name. We follow the eccentric, particular, and peculiar Victorian gentleman, Phileas Fogg. By particular, I mean, he orders that his breakfast be served at 8:37, not 8:36 or 8:38, and that his toast be precisely 87 degrees. As with most gentlemen around that time he has a valet to help him with his day to day tasks but because he is so difficult he's gone through half a dozen in five months. His latest valet is an earnest, Spanish acrobat named Passepartout. Now, the journey begins when Fogg bets his fellow Reform Club members that he can go around the world in 80 days. Hence the name. They visit places like Madrid, Pakistan, Tailand, Japan and it was filmed on location in many of these places.

At 167 minutes, this is a long movie and it feels like it. When the group is in Madrid, Passepartout takes part in a really lengthy bull fight. Being from 1956, before I saw it I anticipated a musical. That would explain the length, I thought. That's one of those things about musicals around that time. There is always a song followed by an extended dancing sequence. Not that there is anything wrong with dancing but, you know, after a while, let's just keep the movie going. But
Around the World in 80 days is not a musical. Instead of dancing sequences, they have parades which are used to showcase a given culture. This is something interesting about this movie too. It provides an opportunity for the 1950's audience to see cultures around the world. There are lots of very relaxing shots with the camera mounted on the front of a train as it passes through the landscape.

Now, this is 1956 after all, and being 1956 you have the problematic racism and sexism that you'd expect. For example, when the group goes through the jungle somewhere in India, they come across a group of cannibals who are sacrificing an Indian Princess, played by the ever so Indian Shirley McClaine. When the groups goes through America, they encountered a group of the Souix or as the movie calls them "violent red skins." It was one of those movies that I just had to say "it was a different time."

Something that struck me as odd was the massive number of cameos. If you look at the wikipedia page for this movie there is a whole section devoted to just the cameos. Frank Sinatra for example is a piano player in a Wild West saloon. He's on screen for maybe a second and has no lines. He just turns around and smiles. I only recognized a couple of people but I'm sure it would be fun if I knew more of them.

The acting overall is good. I liked David Niven as Fogg. He is persnickety but at the same time endearing. Passepartout is a really nice character too. He's like a Spanish acrobatic Charlie Chaplin. The whole tone of this movie is that of a lighthearted adventure.

Would I recommend
Around the World in 80 days? Because it is colorful and long, I can see it projected on a wall to be a backdrop for a party. I once went to a club where Rapmania the Roots of Rap was projected over the bar. Rapmania is a hip hop concert from the mid-nineties. While it was projected on the wall, current music was being played over the speakers. Nobody was really watching the movie unless they were using as a break from conversation or if they were sitting at the bar. It served as a sort of visual stimulation. On it's own though, because it is rather racist and sexist and very long, I wouldn't really recommend it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Young Lakota

Directed by Mairon Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt.

Bottom line: Interesting and satisfying documentary that doesn’t just focus on one particular issue.

Sunny Clifford grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. She went to college determined to get out of the poverty and never return. When she finished her degree, for some reason, she felt drawn back to her home. She wanted to make the world a better place, particularly for her people. The documentary was being filmed around the time South Dakota passed a law banning abortions. On the reservation, the tribe’s president - the tribe’s first female president - Cecilia Fire Thunder announced that she was going to open a clinic for women on her property which would provide abortions. Much like the rest of the country, the tribe was divided on the issue of abortion. As Cecilia didn’t consult the tribal council, she was impeached. The majority of the documentary focuses on Sunny as she develops her voice as a woman and as a Lakota.

This documentary doesn’t focus solely on the debate surrounding abortion, nor does it focus solely on the (wretched) quality of life on Native American reservations. Neither of these issues exists independently and Young Lakota presents the complexity of these issues quite well. A good example is with Sunny’s next door neighbor, Brandon, a full-time student of TV production with two kids. He initially supports Cecilia until he is offered a job to be the head of PR for a pro-life candidate. Brandon has to support his children on a barely minimum wage job. This PR position would be a pay increase but he disagrees with this future employer. Young Lakota does a good job of presenting this ethical dilemma in a realistic way. One might say he shouldn’t take the job because he is pro-choice but he must consider his children's wellbeing.

There are some issues with this documentary. The camera’s shadow and the microphone enter the frame here and there but such technical issues don’t detract too much from the experience. Although I liked the way Young Lakota presented a bunch of different issues, by doing so, it couldn't delve too deeply into any particular issue.

Overall, I'd say to check out Young Lakota. It is only about an hour long and it would be worth your time if you are looking for something to watch over dinner.