Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Color me shocked when I saw that this movie came out ten years ago. In some ways anime has evolved quite a bit since 2004. But it also marks the last time that director Mamoru Oshii helmed a story in the Ghost in the Shell universe. This film was released after the television series Stand Alone Complex aired in 2002. For many the television version was the way a Ghost in the Shell story was supposed to be. But Oshii was going to do what he does best, and that means tell the story with lots of slow pans, long dialogue scenes and amazing visuals.

It has been a number of months since the events of the previous Ghost in the Shell film; Section 9 is still operating as an anti-tech-terrorist unit, but without the guiding hand of Major Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka). Instead her former partner, Batou (Akio Ohtsuka) finds himself teamed up with Togusa (Kouichi Yamadera), on a case that appears to involve a serial killer. Someone is hacking into the cyber brains of servile androids and causing them to kill their owners. When several of these owners turn out to be prominent politicians and businessmen, a foreign power is suspected behind the plot.

As Batou and Togusa dig deeper into the investigation they find that these servant androids are actually prototype models of illegal sex-roids. Is the company creating them, Locus Solus, covering up a mistake in the new cyber brains, or is something more sinister going on? It all leads to a tangle with a yakusa gang, Batou getting his cyber brain hacked, a house of illusion and a final battle against an army of killer gynoids aboard a huge ship.

Good Points:
  • Some beautiful visual sequences and tense action scenes
  • Explores themes and ideas beyond the main plot
  • Expands on the world created in the first film

Bad Points:
  • Moves very slowly with lengthy dialogue sequences
  • Lacks the stand out action sequences of the previous film
  • Far removed in tone and tempo from the manga and television series

Expectations are the key to this movie. If you are expecting a solid follow up to the previous Oshii film, then you’ll be fine with this movie. Just know that it moves much slower and spends more time philosophizing about existence then ever before. Action hounds will be disappointed, with the exception of one scene. But animation fans will have a visual feast, as Oshii creates vivid and memorable settings and sequences that will stay in your mind long after you’ve seen the film.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  4

In Depth Review
A killer doll, or a doll made killer?
This movie is a tough one to review. Much like Ghost in the Shell, it is very serious, very cold and often more concerned with theme and atmosphere at the expense of plot and characters. But that is what makes the film stand apart from much of the other science fiction films and anime of the same era. Compared to something like The Matrix and its sequels (heavily influenced by the original Ghost in the Shell), Innocence feels more like an art film than anything else.

But to be very honest here, Mamoru Oshii takes all the elements that seem to annoy critics of his films and indulges in them endlessly in this film. I don’t like to use the term self-indulgent, but in many ways Innocence feels exactly that. You get the feeling that Oshii is more concerned with cramming as many quotes from literary sources into his film as possible. Or including as many scenes with a basset hound as possible. Or having as many long slow dialogue scenes as possible. It feels excessive. But for all that, it is part of what makes an Oshii film an Oshii film. I don’t whine about David Lynch showing another scene of red curtains blowing in the wind, or a blonde with ruby red lips exhaling smoke in extreme close up. That’s just what he does.

Batou is our hard boiled hero.
Oshii builds this film off of the world he created in Ghost in the Shell, but there are a few changes. First off, it feels more like a noire film than science fiction. Batou becomes our gruff detective out to solve the mysterious crime. There are plenty of scenes where Batou moves in and out of shadows. The city (still appearing to be Hong Kong) is a dirty dangerous place, and in many ways feels more oppressive and grim than in the previous film. Adding to this feel are the cars roving the street, looking like they could have rolled out of Chinatown or Double Indemnity. Of course inside they have full-blown computer systems, but on the outside they look like 1940s cruisers.

The other major change is the color palette. It is based on yellows, golds and oranges. This gives the movie a very unique look, a warm feel at odds with the coldness of the characters and the direction. Darker scenes end up a murky wash of yellows and browns. But later in the film, we a dazzling array of gold, copper and brilliant bronze reflections as Batou and Togusa explore the estate of a hacker who may have already penetrated their cyber brains. The contrast between the visual warmth of Innocence and the cool world of Ghost in the Shell makes for a striking and interesting contrast. It explains why Oshii felt the need to go back to his older film and change the hues more toward that warmer palette (but you can read my thoughts about that little redux over here).

One of many amazingly detailed settings.
Even with the changes to the style, the detail, depth and scope of the film are impressive. The backgrounds and settings are filled with all kinds of little elements and intricacies. At the time it pushed animation detail to an amazing level, one I have rarely seen topped. While the film does take its sweet time doing anything, it does slow down to allow us to really drink in these visuals.

Innocence has a few action scenes in it. The most impressive is when Batou takes on a whole building full of gun touting gangsters. The action is fluid and a nice mix of angles and perspectives. The finale scene also focuses on Batou as he raids a floating gynoid factory as all the defenses are armed. This includes the androids themselves: dolls with the ability to smash a man’s head into pulp. The scene jumps from Batou’s perspective, and his cyber vision feeding him critical information, to amazingly animated combat. But none of these scenes are as exciting as the highlights from the previous film.

Sound effects work is excellent in this film, and it should be considering they got Skywalker Sound to give them a hand. It really immerses you in the world. The quieter scenes work great, especially the scenes inside the mansion of illusion. But the action scenes are a blast, with gunfire seeming to rain all around.

Batou and his guardian angel battle the dolls.
Composer Kenji Kawai returns to work with Oshii again. Innocence is a natural extension of the musical sound he used in the previous film. It is moody and atmospheric, with no real themes or melody. Percussion and simple strings are used to create tension pieces or pulsing moments. The stand-out pieces are the vocals, and once again Kawai uses ancient Japanese singing style and lyrics to create an audio contrast with the high tech world. The new theme song is actually a revision of the previous film’s with slightly altered lyrics and melody. Kawai also worked on a couple of torch songs that play in the film and fit the overall noire feel. It’s an interesting and eclectic mix, one that will rub some viewers the wrong way. But I think Kawai’s score and songs actually help make these films stand out from the crowd.

The DVD I have of this film is actually in Japanese only, so I have to judge the voice acting as best as I can. It is the same cast reprising their roles, and they do a fine job with them. Especially given the fact that they have many long dialogue scenes to work through.

The journey to the mansion is a visual treat.
The script for Innocence is actually based on one of the manga stories from the original run of Ghost in the Shell written and drawn by Masamune Shirow. Unlike the previous film, which combined several of Shirow’s stories into one, this film uses the single story as the focal point. Oshii penned the script himself and keeps a few key moments from the original manga intact. An example is when Togusa nearly gets killed and says “All I could see was my wife and my daughter.” To which Batou replies, “That wasn’t your wife or daughter, they were angels of death”.

And speaking of quotes, Oshii decided that Shirow’s original dialogue just didn’t include enough literary quotes. So he grabbed Bartletts and started highlighting. The result is a film filled with characters quoting Milton, Confucius and ancient proverbs. It becomes a bit comical at times, trying to imagine a world where everyone has extensive knowledge of these texts. The quotes do all end up working with the themes of the film, so I can’t fault the selection, but I do end up wondering if Oshii is trying to impress us with these lines, or if he figured that everything he wanted to say had already been said, so why rephrase it. It’s an interesting choice, and once that ends up distracting me as the film continues.

The mansion is filled with reflective and metallic
Ghost in the Shell was concerned with the nature of life. What do we consider “alive” and to that point, what do we consider “human”. Was Kusanagi, a woman who was pretty much completely synthetic except for her brain a human? And was project 2501, a program the gained sentience and seeking to reproduce also “human”? Innocence goes a step further, asking if something that we don’t even consider animate capable of having a soul? This is an idea that seems very strange to Western thought, but is something that is very much part of Japanese culture and ancient Shinto beliefs.

As the investigation continues, Batou and Togusa discover that the killer androids all end up destroying their cyber brains. But one message is clearly found, the single phrase: “Help me.” This puzzle causes them to wonder who is asking for help, the killer, the victims, or is it somehow coming from these “dolls”, who are being mass produced to serve humans as slaves and sex toys. How far does making something look human go toward giving it a soul? Can a doll be alive?

The blood of the victim obscures Batou's view.
The two men are given multiple answers to the question as the film continues. A coroner tells them that dead human flesh and “dead” mechanical body parts are very similar. They meet a cyber hacker who has completely abandoned his flesh and lives only in his machines and false bodies. And then there is the Major, a fusion of a woman and a cybernetic program, alive on the internet, but physically dead. Kusanagi is literally a ghost in Innocence, mentioned often, and obviously mourned by her companions. But she is still listed as “missing” by Section 9, and Batou talks about her like she is still alive. When he does eventually run into her, she is called a “guardian angel”, a being transcended and alive, but nothing like the physical characters in the film.

There is another subtheme about perception. This is something Oshii has been exploring since his early days with Urasei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. In this film, there are countless shots of eyes, POV shots and strange shots with fisheye lens effects. You have many scenes of characters looking and being looked at. And most disturbing are the scenes of the lifeless eyes of the “dolls” staring at us. These scenes build a visual motif asking us how do we perceive life. Is it simple enough to trust our eyes to tell us when something is alive?

Hope you like hound dogs, because this movie is
full fo them.
Oshii makes a point in Innocence to say this is not the case. Many times in the film are we presented with false images. Batou has his brain hacked into, and nearly kills several innocent people because he believes he is under attack. We see most of this scene from his point of view, a flawed one. Later in the film it is Togusa who is hacked, and we see a sequence in the mansion of illusion play out three different ways, because Togusa cannot distinguish reality from the program sent to his mind. If humans are so easily fooled by these tricks (including the viewer of the film, who is along for the Groundhog Day-esque antics), can these humans be certain that what they view as “alive” is truly alive.

The mystery is eventually solved, with the killer being exposed and the murder spree halted. But Batou wonders about all the “dolls” that were forced to act in such a horrible manner. What did they feel? Could they feel at all? How many victims were in this crime?

The bizarre fisheye lens forces our perspective on
the scene, and the dead eyed hacker's words.
The hacker without flesh says that the world only contains a single type of perfect life form – animals who live in the present and know only what they experience at that time. They don’t have human memories or desires or corruption. They aren’t helpless like dolls. The movie ends with Batou holding his dog and looking at a child’s doll. It’s blue eyes eerily mirroring the eyes of the killer gynoids.

So yes, even the scenes with the basset hound managed to merge with the theme that Oshii is exploring in innocence. As we watch Batou and his dog stare into the eyes of the doll, we are left wondering if there is a ghost in that shell.

What the doll sees.
When it comes down to it, I find it hard not to compare Ghost in the Shell with Innocence. I guess it is inevitable that you do that with sequels. According to Oshii, he wanted to Innocence to stand on its own, and I’m not sure it can. The depth of the themes require you to understand the Major and her story from the first film. She plays a huge role in the finale, and if you don’t know anything about her, you’d be lost. So, I think this film is tied to the previous one, and tightly in many ways.

Innocence feels like an extension of theme and plot from the first film. But it also feels a bit redundant thematically. It explores and restates much of what Oshii covered in the first film, but with longer dialogue scenes, and a slower pace. Yes, it is a gorgeous film, and the eye candy alone makes it worth seeking out. But when it was over, I realized why I hadn’t revisited it in nearly ten years. Ghost in the Shell covered this, and did it exceptionally well. Innocence plays like a coda, crafted to suit the creator more than the viewer. It is an interesting film, but not a necessary one. 

And now a selection of various shots of the staring dolls, just to haunt your dreams and retard your sleep.

Doll: Evidence in the morgue
Dolls: Puppets watching Togusa
Doll: Sacrificial burning during a celebration
Dolls: They approach in legion
Doll: Broken and spattered in still warm blood.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Anime Juke Box - RideBack - RideBack

So I readily admit that my nostalgia gets the better of me, especially when it comes to anime. I reviewed some newer anime when I was writing for DVD Verdict and discovered that most of it was just OK. There were a few shows that were better than others, but nothing really exceptional. That is the main reason I'm sticking to the classics I know and love for this blog. But anime marches on and so does the J-pop used for the opening and closing credits. 

I figured, for once I'll feature a song from a recent anime that I actually enjoyed, RideBack, made in 2009 (OK, not too recent). The J-pop opening credits by Mell feature the typical digi-voiced gal singing with some serious techo backbeats, you know, kinda like modern pop. It is a catchy tune. But with all the voice manipulation I didn't realize until almost two years after seeing it, that all the lyrics are in ENGLISH! Seriously, she's singing in English. They lyrics even tie to the show. Crazy, I tell ya, just plain crazy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Top Ten – Favorite Film Scores of the 1980s

It is safe to say that my enjoyment of film scores started in the 1980s, when I picked up cassette tapes (remember those?) of the scores to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a large part of my score collection contains music from this decade. I had a few readers ask me for top ten lists involving scores, and I was always at a lose on how to proceed. A top ten list of favorite scores vs. a top ten list of historically important scores vs top ten list of best scores by a composer… you see the problem.

For this one I just stuck with personal favorites of mine from films made in the 1980s. These are not my favorite films of the decade. But they are the top ten most listened to film scores. I did rank them, but this ranking is due to change at any moment, because – dammit they are all so good.

And yes, I love adventures scores, so you may notice a bias toward those types of albums. Fans of romantic comedies, sports films and dramas may be disappointed.

10. Kiki’s Delivery Service composed by Joe Hisaishi
So I start off the one score that isn’t an adventure score. But this happens to be one of my favorite animated films by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Because of that, this score is one I can listen to at almost any time. It is light, bubbly and filled with a kind of European flair that you don’t hear in much of Hisaishi’s work. It has lots of fun little moments that are captured musically. It also features music symbolizing the joy of flying (a soaring waltz-like style that Hisaishi would use in the later film Howl’s Moving Castle), as well as moments of quiet contemplation. It’s just a well-rounded CD presentation, and perfect listening for a lazy Sunday or just to take you back to the world of the film.

9. Tron composed by Wendy Carlos
From sweet and soothing to harsh and electronic. The score to Tron fits the film like a glowing power glove, and is certainly not something that everyone will enjoy. Carlos took actual arcade style music fused it with dissonant orchestral techniques and created something very new and unique for the film. It has themes and motifs, and some of them are excellent. The early 80s digital synth effects just create a whole new audio world, one rooted in Atari and arcades. Whenever I mention this is one of my favorite scores of the decade, I get odd looks, but I stick by it. Nothing like Tron has been created since, and it is still a lot of fun to listen to.

8. Batman composed by Danny Elfman
These days people think superhero music, and they think Hans Zimmer thanks to his work on the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel. But before that, people thought of Danny Elfman. His score for Batman is one of the most iconic superheroes scores around, and one that influenced countless imitators. Gothic, powerful and a little quirky, the score captures the nature of the caped crusader and Tim Burton’s vision of that hero in every detail. Batman’s theme swoops, dives and enshrouds the listener. The action music can be frantic, but crates an elegant chaos that is always overwhelmed by Batman’s theme. I still think this work tops Zimmers in nearly every way (from a stand along listen), and every time I return to it, I’m surprised by how dynamic it is.

7. Transformers the Movie composed by Vince DiCola
Oh man, am I gonna get grief for this one. But I can’t help it, I grew up with the Transformers, and this score is part of my childhood. It also the embodiment of the rockin’ 80s soundtracks. You know the stuff: full of synths and wailing electric guitars. Dicola takes those elements and actually creates a score with themes that battle each other, moments of dread and even a touching electronic piece for the death of Optimus Prime. His action set pieces are great stand-alone cues that could come off an electronic artists CD. But he even manages to work in ideas from the supporting songs on the soundtrack like Weird Al’s Dare to Be Stupid and Stan Bush’s Dare. It’s either genius or a marketing tool, but it is all awesome in a purely 80s sense.

6. Young Sherlock Holmes composed by Bruce Broughton
One of the huge influences on the decade in film music was John Williams. Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes takes the Williams template for adventure and fantasy scoring and simply nails it. Broughton keeps a lot of his own stylistic touch in the score, specifically the action queues which are very busy and frantic.  This score has everything you want in a top-notch adventure score. It’s got a great two-part theme for the heroes, a wonderful love theme, a sinister choral chant for the evil cult and a myriad of supporting themes. The action music is energetic, the horror moments are suspenseful and the end credits suite is one of my favorite from this decade.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan composed by James Horner
It was tough to pick just one score from Mr. Horner from the 1980s. He created so many wonderful albums in that decade. It ended up being between this score and his work on Krull. But I think as a complete listen, his score for Wrath of Khan is the best. He creates a wonderful nautical theme for the Enterprise and her crew. For a lot of folks, that theme is one of the best of the entire franchise. Horner also wrote a unique sound for Spock, one that inspired future composers Eidelman and Giacchino for their takes on Vulcan themes. Then there is Khan’s motif that brazenly explodes whenever the villain unleashes. Like all of Horner’s scores, it is filled with powerful emotions and big sound. The final tracks are some of the best of the entire franchise.

4. Explorers composed by Jerry Goldsmith
It was very difficult to pick a favorite Goldsmith score too. He created so many scores in all kinds of films, that picking just one was nearly impossible. But it all boiled down to the score that I listened to the most. That has to be his work on Dante’s family adventure film Explorers. There are about six different themes at work in this score, but the best is “the construction” theme, which serves as the heroic adventure theme for most of the score. I love how hints of the theme appear early in the work as the boys start thinking about the possibilities of space travel. Then you get a fully developed version as they build the machine, and then a wonderful exploration version of the theme (and the supporting “dreamer” theme) as they take it for a first flight. That is just one theme! The rest are all treated and manipulated in various ways, telling the story musically and with a lot of energy and warmth. It just makes me smile each time I listen to it, and it captures that feeling of adventure so well. A perfect fit for a score titled Explorers.

3. Conan the Barbarian composed by Basil Poledouris
This wonderful juggernaut of a score is one that I can always listen to from font to back and never once consider skipping a track. It is that good. Poledouris combines medieval rhythms and melodies to create a primeval feel to the score. Most films took a more classical or romantic approach and this allows the Conan score to stand alone, and yet sound so perfect for it’s film. The wonderful use of choir in tracks like Riders of Doom adds amazing power to those scenes. The love theme is sweeping and adds another layer to the propulsive music. It is one of the rare scores, like Tron, that creates a sonic representation of the visual world of the film. You hear this score and you are taken back to the age of Conan.

2. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom composed by John Williams
This one was nearly impossible, but I had to pick just one score from the Indiana Jones series, and in the end Temple of Doom won. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, but when it comes down to it, Temple of Doom is just a hair more fun to listen to. Williams takes the style and themes he created in the first film and builds on them. But he adds whole new thematic colors to the score and they are doozies. A new gal in Indy’s life gets a new love theme. The sidekick gets a theme. But the supporting themes are too many to count. You get some slick action music erupting in key tracks like Slave Children’s’ Crusade and The Mine Car Chase (which had to have killed some of the orchestra with the speed of those notes). The Temple of Doom chant is the dark blood red cherry on top, adding a huge dose of horror to the whole thing. It is a blast from start to finish, with the Raiders March wrapping the whole thing up. Only one score could possibly top it.

1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back composed by John Williams
It was the 1980s and John Williams was king of the film score world. But this is certainly one of his masterpieces. His approach to the first Star Wars sequel is similar to his approach on the first Indiana Jones sequel: take the familiar themes and build on them. He ended up creating two amazing themes for this film: the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. Both of these themes are driving forces pushing the score into new story directions. The Imperial March is nearly omnipresent, opening and closing scenes, battering the rebels at each turn, and overwhelming Luke’s theme several times. Yoda’s theme works wonderfully during the scenes on Dagobah, often subtly guiding the film. Other times the theme steps forward and takes over: such as in the scene where Yoda raises the X-wing from the swamp. It is even turned into an amazing battle theme as Luke uses Yoda’s teachings to battle Vader. Han and Leia get a sweet love theme that is turned into a dirge when Han is frozen and then into a hopeful beacon as the film swoops into an amazing tour de force end credits suite. All that and again, Williams creates a myriad of lesser themes and motifs that drive the action, with one of his best chase pieces The Asteroid Field taking the cake. It is an amazing score, one of the few that actually tops its predecessor. If you had any doubt that John Williams was a Maestro of film scores, one listen to the complete version of The Empire Strikes Back should convince you to call him Master.


Here is a set of other scores that made into consideration. I could write more about each of them, but this post is long enough. Here they are in alphabetical order. Expect to hear more about them in future blogs.
  • Amadeus
  • Back to the Future
  • Bladerunner
  • Castle in the Sky
  • The Dark Crystal
  • E.T.
  • The Final Conflict: The Omen III
  • Flash Gordon
  • Ghostbusters
  • Glory
  • Gremlins
  • Heavy Metal
  • Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • Hellraiser
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Karate Kid II
  • Krull
  • The Living Daylights
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Poltergeist
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Silverado
  • Star Trek III
  • Star Trek V
  • Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
  • Willow

Friday, April 11, 2014

Score Sample - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

A genre of film music that I've been enjoying quite a bit lately is the Western. I'm not a big fan of the movies themselves. I usually have to be in the right mood to enjoy one. But man, there has been some great music for Westerns of all shapes and sizes. One of the biggest Westerns is, of course, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly. And the music by Ennio Morricone is some of the most recognizable of all time. Play the main theme from this film and nearly anyone will know it is a) from a Western and b) it has Clint Eastwood in it.

However Morricone went beyond simply writing a score for a Western, he basically rewrote the musical language of the whole genre. His first crack at this was for A Fist Full of Dollars. But the score to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly really fires on all cylinders for the entirety of it's run time. This score would influence countless Western scores following it, including Jerry Goldsmith's 100 Rifles. It would also serve as one of the main influences on Hans Zimmer. Just listen to some of his music to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise - you'll hear more than a little Morricone in there. That said, here is one of my favorite tracks from Morricone's score The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - The Ecstasy of Gold.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Treasure Planet (2002)

Disney animation hit some hard times in the early 2000s. Pixar was eclipsing them. Dreamworks released a mega-hit with Shrek. Disney’s star of the 1990s was falling fast, and they were trying to shake things up a bit to get back the crown as the kings of family entertainment. So they decided to attempt a couple of straight up action adventure animations. The first was Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The second was this film based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island.

Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a rough and rowdy teenager living in a spaceport town with his mother. He keeps getting into trouble, and yearning for adventure. You know the type. One evening a mysterious alien named Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan) stumbles into their inn babbling about being pursued by a dangerous cyborg. He hands Jim a strange sphere and dies, before space pirates arrive and destroy everything in sight looking for the sphere. Jim and his mother make their escape.

Jim determines that the sphere is really a map to the fabled treasure planet. He joins forces with the fussy Doctor Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) and charters a space ship to seek out the planet. With them are Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson) and John Silver (Brian Murray). It becomes apparent that Silver is up to something, and while he befriends Jim, he may be using him to find Treasure Planet. Martin Short, Michael Wincott and Laurie Metcalf round out the cast.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing design, character animation and visuals
  • A fun adaptation of the source material
  • James Newton Howard provides a swashbuckling but modern score

Bad Points:
  • Some of the adaptation concepts are a little clunky
  • The comic relief characters are painful… very painful
  • Never finds the right tone, or pacing, or execution

A simple case of Disney trying WAY too hard. The visual aspects are the best part of the film, creating an interesting world to frame the classic tale. But time and again, the movie is scuttled by bad decisions. I lost track of the number of fart jokes. Martin Short’s character was aggressively annoying. Some of the obvious nods to the book were a little too obvious. Other times, they go in an interesting direction only to not follow all the way through. It was a movie I found myself wanting to like, but in the end found it to be a major misfire.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.   

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

For a while there Charleton Heston was contractually obligated to appear only in huge sprawling historical and biblical epics. Ok, I exaggerate a little bit, but only teeny tiny bit. And while we all know about Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, here is one you don’t hear about too often. The topic was unique, the cast was impressive and it has plenty of “epic” moments, but how come you never hear about this film?

The year is 1508 and Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charleton Heston) is hard at work on a glorious tomb for Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). But Pope Julius is more concerned with transforming the Sistine Chapel into something worthy of Papal power. So he demands that Michelangelo paint the 12 apostles on the ceiling. Michelangelo hates this idea, and he tells the pope that to his face. Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor first and foremost. His painting skills were merely a stepping-stone in his education. But Pope Julius insists, and when he insists – he means it.

And so a battle of wills plays out. Michelangelo eventually takes the assignment, but feels no spark of inspiration for it. He drags his feet, and makes many excuses to not work, even fleeing from Rome to escape Julius’s soldiers who have orders to drag him back to the chapel or face prison. While on the run, he is suddenly struck by inspiration – the creation of the world would be a much better and more interesting topic for the ceiling. So he returns to Rome to begin painting, much to Julius’ delight. Unfortunately Michelangelo is a perfectionist. Years drag on and the ceiling is nowhere near completion. Michelangelo begins to go blind and Julius’ health starts to fail him. Will either one survive The Agony and the Ecstasy of this creation of one of the most famous pieces of Renaissance art?

Good Points:
  • A wonderful dynamic between Heston and Harrison
  • Impressive scope and visuals
  • Wonderful score by Alex North

Bad Points:
  • Moves in fits and starts with long dialogue scenes doing little to advance the story
  • The topic seems a bit strained for an “epic” style film
  • The dubbing of the supporting cast may distract some viewers

This seems a strange topic for a huge budget Hollywood epic, and at times the material seems a bit stretched. However the dynamic acting between Heston and Harrison are a real draw. Their scenes together keep the film cooking. The visuals are impressive with beautiful location shooting and impressive sets and interiors. Alex North provides a wonderful musical score. It’s an interesting film done in that classic epic style.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Rogues' Gallery - Sharon Apple

There is no reason to think Sharon's logo is a twisted
version of the Macross Plus logo, no reason at all.
In my review of Macross Plus I spent a lot of time talking about Sharon Apple and her devious ways, but only included a single teaser picture of the virtual idol. That's because Sharon beguiled me with her melodious voice and stunning visage(s). I ended up with way too many screen captures of her. So I focused on presenting the rest of the cast and the mecha from the series, and decided to give Sharon her own blog post.

And since she becomes the primary antagonist of the series, she's a perfect fit for the rogues' gallery concept. What is interesting about Macross Plus is that Isamu is our main character, but his rival Guld, isn't a bad guy. In fact he seems a lot more sensible and calm than Isamu. There's a bit of irony in that, and any fan of the original Macross (or Robotech) series will pick up on it. Guld is actually half Zentradi. The Zentradi are an alien race of warriors who are genetically bred to be soldiers. So it is in Guld's DNA to fight and to win. There is a brief mention in the series that Guld is taking some kind of drug to help temper his killer instinct. Of course he ends up snapping a few times, and Isamu is on the receiving end. But still, Guld isn't a bad guy, he's made some bad choices in life but deep down he still cares about Myung and Isamu.

Guld focusing hard on not killing Isamu.
Since those three were childhood friends, the series needed someone else to raise the stakes of villainy. Enter Sharon Apple. But in all honesty, I feel a bit bad for her too. She's essentially a super powerful child who has no guidance and doesn't realize that she is doing anything wrong. She just wants to please everyone. And the only way to do that is to give them what they want. Since they all love watching her, they get to watch her - forever. She figures out that Isamu loves living on the edge of danger. This must be because he wants to experience death, right? So why not give him that ultimate experience. See it all makes logical sense in the end... Right guys?

Um, Ok, so maybe I've been listening to too much Sharon Apple music, and I'm sympathizing with the devil. But it's hard to argue with a virtual siren. So without further ado, enjoy some images of the real star of Macross Plus. And why don't you listen to her song Idol Talk while you do so. I'm sure it won't have any affect on your mind.

So if Sharon is a virtual idol, then what does her hardware look like. Well it's pretty simple actually. You've got your basic HAL inspired black box with a red eye. Red is a motif for Sharon. Might have something to do with apples, but she will neither confirm nor deny that.

Sharon keeps a digital eye on all her fans.

Later in the series, Sharon takes control of the "Ghost Fighter", a lethal mecha that gives Guld and Isamu a real run for the money. And what color is it?

Oh she's sleek and wicked looking in her "Ghost Fighter"
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but where's the virtual idol! That's what we all came to see! Ok, well you get three different versions of Sharon in her virtual idol form. First there is the pixie-esque playful version.

Just because she's cute doesn't mean she won't
try to kill you.
Then there's the one with the long red hair and hypnotic gaze. She seems to be the seducer of the group, usually appearing when she wants to entice a watcher to do her will.

Whoops, Isamu made eye contact.

Finally there is the purple garbed goddess. She's the one that speaks the most often and wants to care for everyone. But she's just as dangerous as the others.

Sharon tells Myung that she will take care of
everything. It is not a comforting thought.

In the final episode Sharon and Myung have a face off. Creator and creation try to reason with each other. The thing is Sharon is everything that Myung tried to bury. At first Myung doesn't understand that.

Myung tries to have a chat with her "daughters", but
it's difficult when she's tied up.
Once Myung figures out Sharon's logic, it dawns on her how dangerous the virtual idol is. For Sharon, there is no need to "reason" with her creator. Because the reason is so very clear. The roles reverse and Sharon starts treating Myung as the child, even going so far as to appear larger than Myung in those final scenes.

I'm your mother now. Be a good little girl bring
Isamu to me.
One of the perks of being virtual is you can be in multiple places at once. During the finale concert at Macross, Sharon appears as a towering goddess over the city, while her music and image appears on every screen and holographic projector in the city.

A giant crazy goddess was seen over Macross last
But it's hard to stay mad at Sharon. She looks so peaceful when she's turning everyone into her devoted slave/fans. They'll just sit there and stare at her for an eternity (or until they die of thirst, whichever comes first).

So calm. So serene. So crazy. Notice her earrings
are her symbol. 
Eventually Isamu and Guld manage to defeat some of Sharon's traps and weapons. So she starts playing dirty. Isamu enlisted one of her biggest fans (and an expert hacker) to put a stop to the virtual idol. Well, because the poor dope is using a computer to hack into Sharon's mainframe (is that dirty?), she decides to visit him. 

Sharon comes face to face with her biggest fan, and
twists his mind like a candy cane.
Then she goes for Isamu, swimming through his tracking screen and into his lap, singing her siren song the whole time.

Dealing with virtual idols is never covered in the
airline safety films.
Luckily Myung breaks the spell by singing Voices in the intercom and shattering Sharon's hypnotic music. Isamu snaps out of it and destroys Sharon once and for all. It's a neat call back to the original Macross saga, where a pop star's song brings two warring races together.

Giant goddess Sharon is sad there won't be
an encore performance.
And there you have it, the ULTIMATE Sharon Apple experience on this blog. Short of going to one of her concerts it doesn't get much better than this. So for fans of the muse hell bent on pleasing her fans to death, I hope you enjoyed this gallery. Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to listen to Information High again and wait for Sharon to come out of my computer and sing me to death... sleep, I meant sleep. 

Disclaimer: While Sharon Apple was destroyed at the end of the series, fans suspect that some of her programming survived and is even now plotting a return to the virtual world. Except she changed her name to Hatsune Miku to keep people from freaking out.