Monday, October 31, 2011

House (1977)

       There is absolutely no proper way to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (which retained its English title in its native country of Japan as a way of keeping things "taboo"). An actual review of this film would only consist of a brief plot summary and explanations of the various events that occur during the course of the film's running time. The film was released by Toho, a popular and well known film company in Japan. Toho decided to take a chance with this film, which was partially written by Obayashi and inspired by the imagination of his daughter. It was hated by Japanese critics but a hit with young audiences, so it was quite successful. The film never saw a North American release date until only recently, when Janus Films bought the distribution rights and released it theatrically in 2009; the result was a hit with the midnight-movie crowd and more positive reception from critics, helping this one-of-a-kind film achieve cult status.

       The film's plot concerns a girl and her 6 classmates, each of them going by a nickname: Gorgeous, Sweet, Prof, Fantasy, Mac, Melody, and (my personal favorite) Kung Fu. Gorgeous invites them all to her aunt's house after their initial summer vacation plans don't work out. Once there, weird things start to happen.

       Majority of this movie takes place in the titular house (or mansion, whatever you wanna call it), but even from the beginning, this movie acts strange. From odd camera styles, to questionable transitions (wipes, fades, those sorts of things), this film lets on early that it's weird. Most of the things that happen have no meaning or anything like that; it's just random. Weird things happen for absolutely no reason -- there are so many bizarre events and occurrences that trying to describe them all or explain them all is pointless, but describing the events can also spoil it for anyone wanting to see this movie. Some highlights that I don't mind mentioning include the cat Blanche (watch out for that cat!), a scene involving pieces of wood, a scene involving large lips, and a scene involving what can only be described as a dance sequence (you'll know it when you see it).

       While the plot may seem nonsensical, it apparently has underlying themes on WWII and what not. This mainly has to do with the aunt, but I won't go into it. I'd rather talk about the main characters, because they're pretty interesting and unique. Each of their nicknames reflects them in some way: Gorgeous is seen to be the most beautiful and glamorous of the group; Sweet is, well, the sweetest and probably the cutest of the group, as well as the most innocent; Prof is the brains of the group, wearing glasses and reading at various points during the film; Fantasy is the one who starts to see the odd events before anyone else realizes they exist, so naturally, they say it's her imagination; Mac is always hungry and eating something; Kung Fu is a martial artist and takes the initiative to do things, as well as use her martial arts skills to defend the girls (but she also uses her skills to do other non-lethal stuff). Another character worthy of mentioning is Mr. Togo, who was originally going to take the 6 girls (not including Gorgeous) to some training camp thing, but it didn't work out, so he also got invited to go to Gorgeous's aunt's house. This character doesn't show up very often, but he's extremely humorous and gives, what in my opinion is, the funniest line in the whole movie ("Bananas!"); the line itself may not be too funny, but the way he says it and the context in which he says it makes it hysterical.

       Overall, House is the craziest movie I've ever seen (Eraserhead, eat your heart out!). It's a film that features intentionally cheesy effects, random background music, unique characters, and a house full of stuff that kills people. I don't know if I'd recommend it to just anyone, but given its odd ball approach and anything goes way of being, I'd say anyone can see it if they want to. There's a few scenes of nudity and gore, but for the most part it's just a silly and (believe it or not) joyous film that only aims to entertain. If you're a fan of midnight movies or Japanese cinema, I definitely recommend it. If you're a fan of movies that make no sense and mess with your head, I highly recommend it. In the end, there is no proper way to review House or explain it; you'll just have to see it for yourself. And if you do decide to see it, be aware that what you're going to see isn't from this planet. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Superman (1978)

       Noted as the first superhero film, the one that started the trend, and still noted as one of the best of all time, Richard Donner's Superman (also known as Superman: The Movie, which is more of a marketing title, since it's just called Superman in the credits) is a tale of epic proportions. With a beautifully orchestrated score by John Williams, excellent performances from the cast, amazing special effects (for it's time and even today), and a timeless story who's influence is dabbled in religion and mythology, this film stands head and shoulders above the majority of comic books films.

       Divided into three parts, Superman begins on the planet Krypton, with Jor-El (played wonderfully by Marlon Brando) banishing General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his gang (only two other people) into the Phantom Zone. He later tells the council he's a part of that the planet will be destroyed soon and they will all die if they do not evacuate. Of course, no one listens to him, but Jor-El takes the necessary precautions and sends his infant son Kal-El to the planet Earth, were he will have extraordinary powers, due to Kryptonians being light-years ahead of human beings (or something like that). He sends him in what resembles a star (noted as a Biblical reference), but not before also placing a green crystal in his ship (the ship is made up of white/clear crystals).

       The second part has us seeing Clark Kent (played by Jeff East but dubbed by Reeve) as an 18 year old living in Smallville. He wishes he could show everyone his amazing abilities, but of course, he can't, so he's no where near as popular in school as he could be (but Lana Lang takes a liking to him). His Earth father Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Earth mother Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) are a great influence to him and stay in his heart and mind for the rest of his journey. The green crystal eventually shows it self to Clark in the family barn and he goes off to the North (where there's nothing but ice and glaciers). Once there, he throws the crystal into the distance, and it lands in the ice, changing the land area and forming the Fortress of Solitude. It is here where Clark sees his father in the crystals, and where the answers to his questions are found. After 12 years of learning and training (which we mainly hear and sort of see in a montageesque sequence, featuring excellent dialogue from Brando which still packs a punch and has grand influence today) he sets off to help the world in any way he can in a blue and red outfit.

       The third (and longest) part thus begins with the mild-mannered and bumbling Clark Kent getting a job at the Daily Planet. It's here we meet the characters Jimmy Olson (Marc McClure), hot-tempered boss Perry White (a hilarious Jackie Cooper), and professional, yet prone to misspells, writer Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). While I've already talked about the film's plot (in embarrassing detail), I'll say very little regarding the rest of it. As is expected, a bad guy by the name of Lex Luthor (a hysterical and evil Gene Hackman) comes up with a plan to make the West coast his own by drowning half of California. The people he mainly interacts with are his bumbling henchman Otis (Ned Beatty) and girlfriend Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Their interactions with one another are some of my favorite parts in the whole movie; seeing the apathetic Eve deal with Lex's actions and seeing what happens when Otis messes up an order by Lex are always a delight to watch.

       The main star of the film (no matter what the main credits and end credits might tell you) is, of course, Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. Let it be known, till the end of time, that Reeve is Superman. He's also excellent as Clark Kent, pulling off both personas as if he were born to play the roles. While many actors before and after him have played the part of Clark Kent/Superman, it's no surprise that, even to this day, Reeve is the one most remembered and revered in the role. I have absolutely no problem with seeing different actors interpret the role of an iconic hero in their own way (truth be told, I love it), but I think Reeve will forever be engraved as the Man of Steel. (One reason for this probably has to do with the fact that he played him for all 4 movies, not counting Superman Returns.)

       The rest of the cast (as aforementioned) is great. Just like how Reeve is Superman, Brando is Jor-El (but again, I'm all up for different interpretations by other actors). Brando's Jor-El is so well done and respectable, it's no wonder his quotes and monologues are referenced and mentioned to this day. Margot Kidder does a great job as Lois Lane, a woman who's mainly concerned with work but falls head over heels for Superman. Jackie Cooper as the head boss provides some of the funniest moments in the film. But the main scene stealer is Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, who seems to be having a lot of fun playing an arrogantly intelligent and evil character; you could even say his acting is campy or over-the-top. Either way, it's a great performance and maybe even the best one in the whole movie -- but that's all up to debate.

       When it comes to themes, Superman has a lot of them, maybe even too much, so I'm just going to brush over the main ones. The story of Superman parallels with the story of Jesus Christ (as well as Hercules if you want to go that far): a man sends his only son to Earth so that he may find his destiny and do good and help the people of Earth. Jor-El even says some lines that talk about him always being in his son and his son always being in him, further alluding to the Biblical story. Other Biblical allusions include the banishing of Zod and his gang into the Phantom Zone (seen as God banishing Satan out of Heaven) and Kel-El having adoptive parents on Earth who couldn't have a child of their own (alluding to Mary and Joseph). Another thing I'd like to note is that the crest on Superman's outfit (which resembles an S) turns out being the House of El crest (making it the El family crest). This is never directly stated, but apparent in the council scene near the beginning of the movie where Jor-El and his fellow Kryptonians are discussing his doomsday theory; all of the Kryptonians in this scene have different crests on their outfits.

       John William's score (conducted by the London Symphony Orchestra) is amazing, nearly tying for Best Superhero Score Ever with Tim Burton's Batman. Right from the opening main titles (which is easily one of the best main title sequences in motion picture history) the score makes its presence and importance known as credits flash across the screen. The music in Superman is extremely important, since it emphasizes moments that are epic (main titles), romantic (Superman flying with Lois Lane), imminent (Superman facing kryptonite), or inspiring (the last scene of the film).

       Other things to note: The film happens to take place in a specified year (1978, the year of the film's release), but the movie never out right tells you what it is; you'll have to piece it together (which, I promise you, is not hard to do). Due to it taking place in the late '70s, certain trends of the time show up in some of the scenes containing extras walking the street or hanging around (plain looking clothes and collars popped outside of coats, for example), but somehow, it makes the film look modern as well as retro all at the same time. Those types of things can sometimes bother me, since it can make a film look dated, but in the case of Superman, I didn't care -- especially since it takes place in a specified year (like in the Back to the Future films), which helps the film not look as dated as it could have looked. The special effects in this film were completely innovative at the time and looked amazing back then, but even today, they still look incredible and still hold up. They have a magic charm that I don't think could be replicated today, due to the excess use of CG these days. I sometimes thought Kidder's Lois Lane came off as annoying, but for the most part she came off as a city girl with a strong attitude and state of mind. There's a scene I found particularly amusing and a nod to the old-fashioned style of Superman: When Clark Kent first becomes Superman publicly, he's outside as Clark and needs a place to change; he looks at a phone booth (his most famous and iconic changing place) only to realize it's a lot more modern with no booth surrounding the phone. Something I'd really like to mention is how the film starts up: A white image (old Warner Bros. logo) with accompanied lettering lets us know that Warner Bros. released this movie; I guess since this wasn't a Warner Bros. produced film, they had no reason to display their main logo (the colored badge-looking one) at the start of the film. After that, curtains show up and pull a part a little bit to uncover a 4:3 screen showing us a brief black and white interlude (starting with the words June 1938) talking about the Great Depression and how it affected the Daily Planet. I honestly have no idea what purpose this interlude has, but within the screen between the curtains the film unexpectedly segues into the main titles, and that I must say is really cool. Still, the interlude caught me off guard (was that the intention?) and no matter what explanation I might find that explains it's purpose, I'll still find it oddly unnecessary -- but the terrific segue makes up for it.

       As a piece of pop culture or as a comic book adaption, Superman is an excellent film that transcends its initial superhero genre by telling a timeless tale with class and genuine drama, making it unlike any other superhero movie I've ever seen (although this might have something to do with it being the first real superhero movie ever produced). It has its share of action, romance, danger, and most surprising of all, comedy. The film never takes it self too seriously, but at no point does it become a campy parody. The symbolism, the themes, and the overall lesson and tale Superman weaves, along with its brilliant casting, effects, and music, make this classic film a masterpiece in its own right. Trust me when I tell you that, when you watch this movie, you'll believe a man can fly.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Batman (1989)


       Before the late '80s, the image most associated with Batman was the one portrayed in the Batman television series from the late 1960s. This was a campy and spoof like version of Batman that actually didn't stay true to what Batman really was or represented. Never the less, the television show was popular (even among Bat fans) and helped the Caped Crusader gain a wider audience. During the '80s, graphic novels such as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moor's The Killing Joke helped bring back the dark image and themes that were associated with Batman. By the late '80s, Warner Bros. released a film that brought Batman back to his dark roots, with the help of macabre director Tim Burton.

       The result was Batman, a dark and atmospheric film that, for the first time on screen, showed us who the Dark Knight really was. The film was a huge commercial success and garnered, for the most part, positive reviews from critics and fans who applauded the return to a darker Batman while also criticizing a few things here and there. The film stars Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it's Jack Nicholson who gets top billing (literally) as Jack Napier/The Joker. Other characters and actors include Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox (the most '80s character in the whole movie), Pat Hingle as Commissiner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, and of course, Michael Gough as Alfred. The whole cast does a great job, with the ultimate highlight and praise going towards Nicholson and Keaton, respectfully.

       The story is fairly simple: Joker vs. Batman. That's really all that needs to be said. I mean, there's more to it then that, but not only is the story not a strong focus (a negative or positive depending on how you see it) but possible plot points can be revealed if too much of the story is discussed.

       One of the most interesting things about Batman is that, right at the start, Bruce Wayne is already Batman. I've never seen another superhero movie (that isn't a sequel) have the main character already be the superhero right when it starts (Daredevil and the X-Men films don't count). What this does is establish that in Gotham City, some "bat" or guy in a bat outfit is going around and getting bad guys. Not a bad way to start the movie at all, and it feels a lot more comic book-ish, since most first issue comic books of a superhero already have the protagonist going around being the superhero while establishing an origin story later on. Whether the movie firmly establishes how Bruce becomes Batman might be up to you to decide, but again, I won't go into that. On the other hand, we are shown how Jack Napier becomes the Joker. Nicholson is terrific as the wild and crazy villain who is absolutely unpredictable with a dark sense of humor. I used to think this movie just had Nicholson playing himself, but when I saw the film (and saw it again) I saw that it really was Nicholson playing an insane character while still staying within the confines of reality (to some degree). Some of the my favorite scenes involving him are when he doesn't look like the Joker (but still has his "smile"), like the board meeting with him and some gangsters. One my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Napier is at a surgeon's place and he sees his reflection in a mirror, breaks the mirror, gets up, and walks out of the place (up stairs), all the while laughing manically. The place where the surgery is done, and the surgeon's character, mixed with the subtle music, the minimal lighting, and Napier's reaction, make it a one of a kind scene in my book.

       Arguably, one could say there's more emphasis on the Joker then on Batman, and to that I say it's the writer's faults. By already establishing Batman as Batman, and showing us who the Joker is before he becomes the Joker, it seems the script is set up to show us more of a character we know very little of as opposed to a character we should already be familiar with. But is any of this a bad thing? No, not really, especially since Nicholson is always a delight when he's on screen.

       Now, about Bruce Wayne/Batman: Keaton does an excellent job as Batman; he's simply awesome in the role as well as convincing. I at first didn't like his Bruce Wayne but came to like it more with repeated viewings. When he's Wayne, he's completely unassuming to the point where I could never believe this guy is Batman. And then he puts on the suit and kicks ass. It's nothing short of phenomenal that he pulls off the role of Batman while still being utterly convincing as some playboy millionaire called Bruce Wayne. Michael Gough as Alfred is pretty good; there isn't too much to say, but he plays his part and plays it well. One interesting thing to note is that not too much is said as to what happened to Wayne earlier in his life, but as usual, I'm not go into that. One of my other favorite scenes is when Wayne confronts the Joker in Vale's apartment and he utters one my favorite lines in the whole movie. (And in case you're curious as to what line that is, it's during the part where he "gets nuts.")

       The cinematography and art direction is beautiful, in a dark kind of way of course. Many of the costumes and buildings look inspired by film noir and art deco architecture, helping to make the film look modern and old fashioned all at once. The only thing that sticks out in this regard are some of the vehicles; they look too modern (or at least, too '80s modern) in this type of environment. Exceptions would include the Batmobile (which is awesome) and anything driven by the Joker and his henchmen.

       The film has two soundtracks: a score by Danny Elfman and original songs by Prince. Some of the Prince songs show up in the movie (notably during the museum scene and the parade), but Elfman's score dominates this picture. This film has what is probably my favorite (if not the greatest) score for a superhero film ever (Superman would be the close contender); the main titles theme still gives me chills. The main titles itself is one of the greatest main title sequences I've ever seen in any film; it establishes the mood and atmosphere while moving around a landscape that eventually shows it self to be the Batman symbol.

       Overall, when all is said and analyzed, Batman is a great piece of superhero action and a great example of a superhero movie. It started off the Batman movie series and helped establish the dark mood of Batman that we see today, as well as help make the Batman animated series possible. Tim Burton knew what he was doing with Batman, and Keaton and Nicholson are at the top of their game as the heroes and villains of this Gotham City tale. However you like your Batman, and whatever your stance on superhero movies in general is, this is one you shouldn't miss; it still holds up today as a fine adaption of a well known and beloved icon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Year (2011)

       Admit it: the idea of watching a movie about bird watchers (or birders, as they call themselves) doesn't sound as appealing as watching a movie about robotic aliens or a weekend in Vegas. Yet, The Big Year made me give a damn about the different species of birds, the character's determination to spot the most birds, and it made me laugh. A lot. Without using any kind of cliches, The Big Year also manages to teach some lessons and show us some truths along the way.

       Starring Steve Martin (as Stu Preissler), Jack Black (as Brad Harris), and Owen Wilson (as Kenny Bostick), the story concerns three individuals who compete in the Big Year, a competition among birders where the goal is to spot as many birds in a single year as possible. Throughout the film, we see all three characters spot so many different species of birds, you can tell the film makers did their homework. Many of the shots of the birds are great while a few are actually CG, but hey, I can forgive'em. The characters keep the story mainly interesting with their struggles and personalities. Kenny Bostick (Wilson) is the best birder in the world, having spotted a record 732 birds in 2003; he plans to keep (or beat) his record, even if it gets in the way of his family life. Brad Harris (Black) is a divorced 36 year old who's always wanted to compete in the Big Year and is able to recognize any bird by its sound. Stu Preissler (Martin) is a million/billionaire who owns his own huge company in New York City and finally decides, after so many years, to compete in the Big Year, having his family's complete support. As the film progresses, we get to see how these three characters get their spotting done, what their families think of the year long ordeal, and what eventually happens once the New Year comes around again and ends the Big Year.

       Shot in anamorphic with Panavision cameras, the film doesn't always use its widescreen to show the audience more of things. Mainly, the widescreen is used to A) show the audience the surrounding areas that the birders visit (which include too many locations to recall) and B) to have space to fill up the screen with text, writing, and tally's. Either way, the widescreen is fitting. The story it self not only deals with the people spotting birds, but what consequences and rewards might come out of it. The film has a very quirky start and eventually goes into "realistic" territory, but for me, its ending really brought the whole thing together (like it should). The film eventually shows us what obsession can do to us if we truly let it rule our lives. It also shows us that through our obsessions or interests we can meet others who relate or understand. Unlike many stories of this sort, it doesn't stick to one side but shows us the different types of people who participate in the sport, their different experiences, the price some pay to be the best at it, and the sacrifices people make to pursue their passions.

       The Big Year may not be a great movie, but it comes out being charming and very sweet. The fact that it's rated PG also goes to show that you don't need to be rated mature to be mature. The Big Year has plenty of laughs, sentimental moments, characters you'll enjoy seeing, and while it isn't perfect, it ends up proving that it has more in store for the audience then it originally let on. Don't let the idea of watching the journey of a few bird watchers turn you off; this is a really good movie with true lessons and great laughs. See it before it disappears into obscurity, like a bird that is only seen by a lucky few.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

       John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 was released in 1976 and was the director's second full-length feature film. The movie tells the story of a few people trapped in an almost abandoned police station that is under siege by a gang of street killers. If that sounds like the plot to an exploitation feature, that's because it is. Assault on Precinct 13 was made on a low budget but never lets that get in the way of the action, suspense, atmosphere, or even the score (though, it might get in the way of some of the acting). While it isn't always action packed, it surprisingly keeps the attention of the viewer and is never exactly boring, thanks to the aforementioned suspense and characters.

       Shot in glorious Panavision, Carpenter makes very good use of the anamorphic widescreen format. For a film that doesn't always have a lot going on and takes place in the dark half the time, the format never seems to be put to waste. Nearly every shot takes advantage of the space that the format provides it with. The score (composed by Carpenter himself) is excellent and is only composed of synthesizers that not only sound creepy but really help establish the paranoid atmosphere of the film. Right from the opening titles (red letters on a black background), the score lets you know you're in for something serious.

       Serious seems to be the word in this film. Majority of the characters (which include a cop, two secretaries, and a couple of convicts) take everything as serious as can be. The convicts are mainly the ones in charge of the comic relief; they have a sense of humor, but are not merely there for comic relief alone and get serious when the time calls for it. The film also has a few moments that impressed me (one in particular shocked and impressed me) but that doesn't mean the film as a whole isn't good; just some moments are more eventful than others. On that note, I'd like to say this: Exploitation films typically have filler (people just talking, that sort of thing) but this movie, while not always full of action, never seems to have a moment of filler. Every scene seems to be there for a reason, and for a film where the siege doesn't occur until the half way point, that's pretty impressive.

       Assault on Precinct 13 isn't the best action movie I've ever seen, it could've been better, but for a second feature and for a low budget movie, it's actually really good. It just happens to suffer from the ol' it-could-have-been-better problem. But even with that in mind, it managed to keep my interest, managed to have plenty of suspense, and had really good action scenes. The acting is okay, but the characters themselves (especially the convicts) can be entertaining (in a low budget kind of way, I guess). Overall, it's a really good movie that is worth checking out, especially for Carpenter fans. When it comes to low budget exploitation action, or just action in general, this one delivers.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Equinox (1970)

For a film like this, a review really wouldn't be necessary, but I just couldn't pass on the chance to spread the word.

       Equinox was originally a short film by Dennis Muren (future Oscar-winning visual-effects artist) entitled The Equinox...A Journey into the Supernatural that was picked up for distribution by Jack H. Harris. Harris and Jack Woods shot additional footage to bring the movie to full feature length. The end result is easily the crappiest movie I've ever seen that actually isn't crappy. The movie was made with only $6500; a shoestring budget, entirely. Even with that budget, the film still has good (enough) acting and very good special effects (for a film with barely a budget). As far as low budget horror films go, this one is surprisingly good.

       The story concerns a group of friends (or are they college students? I honestly don't know) who go into the woods to meet up with a professor (who is a friend of one of the characters). They try to find him, but only find his destroyed cabin, a creepy old man living in a cave, an old book, and a strange park ranger by the name of Asmodeus. Throughout the film (which, as you might guess, isn't very long) strange things happen, which include the discovery of another dimension and fights with monsters. The film is not a gore fest and crazy odd things aren't always happening, but, for whatever reason, I was never really bored; I was actually entertained when the characters were merely interacting.

       As aforementioned, the special effects in this film are quite impressive -- and sometimes hilarious. As you might expect, the film uses stop motion animation to make (most) of these monsters come alive, but the film also uses neat camera tricks to achieve its goals. It may be low budget, but it still manages to look as professional as it possibly can. Since the film is old and easily a midnight movie, the print of the film is not perfect, but it sure is a great restoration (thanks to the boys and girls at Criterion Collection who released the film on DVD). It should be mentioned that the original short film is on the same DVD that houses the theatrical version.

       Equinox is a surprisingly good and entertaining movie that has great special effects, odd moments, surreal scenes, good (enough) acting, interesting enough characters, awesome monsters, and an overall midnight low budget cult B-movie atmosphere and feel. Whether you're into these types of movies or not, I'd still suggest you give Equinox a watch.