Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Anime Juke Box - Absolute Destiny Apocalypse - Revolutionary Girl Utena

The 1990s were great for fans of the 1970s, because there was a huge nostalgic boom for that disco decade. It explains why we ended up with The Brady Bunch Movie as well as Boogie Nights. But we also had a bit of a 70s throw back for film music and even J-pop featured in anime. One of the most 70s-tastic scores of the 1990s was for the anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena. During the series the leading lady would engage in a sword duel with various rivals, and the whole thing was scored with a full blown 70s rock opera style of pop.

The musical style is kind of hard to describe, so I'll just let you listen to it. This piece is played quite a few times during the series as Utena climbs a glass staircase to face her next dueling opponent. The title can be translated a few ways, but I've always seen it as Absolute Destiny Apocalypse performed by the mysterious J.A. Seazer. And if you think this sounds strange, some of the other dueling songs are even odder.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mad Max (1979)

Introduction:

Some of the big holes in my movie watching experience are the Mad Max films. Honestly, I’ve only seen about 20 minutes of Beyond Thunderdome at a friends house. I just wasn’t terribly interested in dystopian science fiction when I was a kid, and it wasn’t until much later did I hear how insane The Road Warrior was supposed to be. I was finally able to see the first film in this franchise and I’ve got to be honest, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Summary:

Max (Mel Gibson) is part of a group of highway patrollers attempting to keep the highways in Australia safe. But marauding gangs of thugs are criss-crossing the country after an undisclosed crisis has brought the world to the brink.  During an extended chase with a particularly nasty madman, Max takes the killer out. He figures he should take some time off with his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and their son.

Of course, the thug has friends, and they are lead by the ruthless Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The gang starts a campaign of harassment against the police, but Max and his pals think they can handle it. The dangers escalate and Max realizes that he may be in over his head and putting his family in jeopardy. Should he attempt to face Toecutter and his cronies, or make an escape with his wife? In the end Toecutter is going to face Mad Max and wish he had left well enough alone.

Good Points:

  • Some excellently staged chases and driving
  • Charged with intensity and unease
  • Creative sound and visuals add to the unique feel of the film
Bad Points:

  • I found the score to be very distracting
  • The plot is nothing terribly new
  • Thick accents and very loud music may make it hard to follow some of the dialogue.
Overall:

Based on all the trailers for Fury Road and what I keep hearing about The Road Warrior I expected a massive action-fest. Instead I got a simple tale of a man fighting to stay sane in an insane world. Vengeance fuels the final ten minutes of the film, but the rest of the movie is the build to that climax. Miller does a fine job keeping the pacing brisk and the atmosphere of intensity rising and rising. The car chases are filmed very well, pulling you into the thrills. I enjoyed this grim film, but was expecting something a bit more fun.

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


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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Black Hole (1979)

Introduction:

I know a lot of movie snobs that blame Star Wars for all the bad movies after 1977. I love that movie too much to join them. However, we can certainly blame George Lucas’ space opera for the sudden attack of science fiction adventures that flooded the cinemas in the late 70s and early 80s. 20th Century Fox was raking in the cash and all the other big studios wanted in on the action. Disney was no exception. It would be decades before they brought Star Wars under the power of the mouse, but before that happened, we were treated to this film.

Summary:
The starship Palomino is exploring deep space when it comes upon a black hole of enormous size. Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and his crew are excited about the scientific discoveries they can make. Then they find something even more interesting, a long lost ship, the Cygnus, just hovering at the very edge of the black hole and seemingly unaffected by the tremendous gravity.

The Palomino attempts contact with the Cygnus but it is almost destroyed by the black hole. They land on the ghost ship and discover that only one man remains alive on board, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). He is a genius scientist who created the field that holds the Cygnus in place. He is surrounded by a crew of robots that run the ship and maintain order. But as the crew of the Palomino start to find out more about Reinhardt and the Cygnus the more they realize that they are in terrible danger. Reinhardt is preparing for his ultimate experiment and none of them may escape the destructive power of The Black Hole.

Good Points:
  • Some gorgeous and unique production design
  • Solid acting by the entire cast
  • An impressive score by John Barry

Bad Points:
  • Cute robot antics may rub some viewers the wrong way
  • The derivative nature of the story or characters may be too familiar
  • Anyone looking for hard science fiction should look elsewhere 

Overall:

This is one of those movies that almost works but never quite gels into a complete entertainment package. So many elements are solid or even excellent. But when taken together you get a movie that feels messy and unrefined. The film looks and sounds spectacular considering its age and Schell gives a performance that steals the show. Those who remember this fondly will probably find plenty to enjoy but new viewers may find it lacking.

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

In Depth Review

He can't stop watching The Black Hole either.
When I was a kid I used to torment my sister by watching The Black Hole and Tron over and over again. My goal wasn’t to torment her, I just liked the creativity and adventures in those movies. For me, these two Disney flicks represent some of the amazing risks the studio was taking at the time and also some of the issues they couldn’t seem to avoid. 

The Black Hole is essentially a retelling of Disney’s take on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Maximilian Schell playing the Captain Nemo role that James Mason owned in 1954. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of Disney’s most popular and lucrative films in the 1950s. So it makes sense that they wanted to mirror that success with their space adventure. The story acts as the frame The Black Hole is built on. But it is the other influences that end up muddying the clarity of the film.

The black hole or  V'ger's cloud?
Star Wars was a pioneer for visual effects. Things were accomplished in that film using computer controlled cameras and a variety of innovative techniques to create a type of realism that hadn’t been seen in science fiction films since 2001: A Space Odyssey. What makes the Black Hole impressive is that the visuals were accomplished not by ILM or anyone from Lucas’ team, but by Disney’s in-house effects crew. It may be one of the last Hollywood films to actually feature effects by the studio instead of an independent specialized effects house.

Visually the movie forged its own path. A quick look at the space ship, robot and costume design will show you that. The starships in The Black Hole are completely unique. The Palomino is a squat cylinder with extended legs and thrusters. It looks very functional, almost like a 1970s satellite.

"Like a tree on Christmas Morning..."
But the real visual masterpiece is the Cygnus. This is a gorgeous ship. I love the lighting scheme used on it, giving it a warm and yet sinister feel. It exudes mystery and menace in equal measure. During the scene where the crew of the Palomino does a flyover of the Cygnus we are treated to some up close views of this impressive model. Both The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture feature this kind of flyover sequence and I find both very effective. Oddly enough, both films came out the same year.

The interiors for the ships follow a similar feel. The Palomino is cramped, utilitarian and mostly grey. Again, it feels like a natural progression from the 1970s space technology. But the Cygnus is all gothic style mystery. It’s filled with struts, supports creating a web of crisscrossing lines. It has a huge scope, one that often feels like it is overwhelming and devouring the cast (thanks to some impressive matte painting work). The Cygnus could very well pass as a futuristic Flying Dutchman – a ship destined to journey into hell and take you with it.

What the drone sees.
Finally there are the robots. The Cygnus has its private army of robot enforcers. These guys serve as your Stormtroopers, with all the same look and movement. I do like their two barreled laser guns (which reappear in Guardiansof the Galaxy as a kind of homage). Those suckers always looked cool. I was always a bit disappointed that S.T.A.R., their leader, got taken out like a punk, but it was to show off how cool V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B (Slim Pickens) were . But before I talk about them, I have to mention the creepy looking Drones that populate the ship. These robed figures with reflective faces really gave me the chills when I was a kid, and they move around the ship almost like ghosts. We are told early on that they are robots, but the crew of the Palomino discovers a horrible secret about them.

The two hero robots of The Black Hole are V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B. These two little guys float around, crack wise and at times V.I.N.CENT. is smarter than most of his companions. In many ways these guys are obviously inspired by R2-D2, but actually manage to be different enough to keep Lucasfilm from coming after anyone.

Nothing sinister here.
But the most distinctive robot from The Black Hole is the red devil Maximilian. He is a hulking monstrosity, all angles and sharp points. He hovers over the ground just above all the other characters in the film. His single red eye glows a fearsome red and pulses when he is angry (harkening back to original Cylons form Battlestar Galactica). He also has whirling blade appendages that he uses to cut down anyone he feels like. Reinhardt claims to have created Maximilian, but at times he seems fearful of the giant, and it doesn’t always obey him. Why would you create a robot with whirling death blades if you weren’t interested in butchery? Maximilian is a fearsome and disturbing puzzle, and adds to the feel of dread that the movie attempts to capture.

THE scene from The Black Hole.
One more word about the visual effects. No matter how scientifically inaccurate the movie is (and yeah it really goes off the rails at times), the special effects are visually stunning and impressive. The black hole is a whirling vortex of blues, blacks and greens. It is always spinning outside the Cygnus and looks sinister enough to increase the disquieting feeling of horror. The Black Hole looks evil, something that plays into the themes of the film. But I also have to mention the meteor shower that comes crashing into the Cygus during the finale of the film. Asteroids are a staple of space adventure films from The Phantom Planet to The Empire Strikes Back. But never before have hurtling asteroids looked so diabolical. These suckers are flaming balls of death that come crashing down and destroy everything in their path. If one image has remained from The Black Hole over the years, it is of our heroes crossing a thin bridge in front of the rolling ball of flames.

The sound work does a fine job of supporting the visuals. Dialogue is crisp and clear and never overpowered by the sound design. The audio work for the sci-fi gadgets, ships and robots is unique to the film and helps build the world we see. I especially like how the interiors of the Cygnus sound cavernous and disturbingly quiet further adding to the disquiet the audience and Palomino crew feel.

The music certainly adds to the bizarre finale.
I posted a blog about John Barry’s score to The Black Hole and focused on the main theme, a swirling tune that captures the relentless power of the black hole. But the score has several other elements that work within it. There is a heroic theme for the action scenes, especially when Captain Holland or V.I.N.CENT. are battling the enforcer robots in the final third of the film. It’s a bit brash and maybe even a bit corny, but it works. To me the moments where Barry’s music really takes flight is when he’s building suspense in the first portion of the film. His music captures and enhances the majesty of the Cygnus and scope of the Reinhardt’s ego very well. As the movie continues, he builds this relentlessness of power in the score. The final third is equal parts action music (based on the heroic theme) and driving intensity as the Cygnus attempts to dive into the Black Hole. Barry keeps things slowly but steadily climbing. The crescendo is the finale piece as both crews discover the existential reality within the Black Hole. This piece combines the diabolical and hopeless with the triumphant and angelic. It brings unity to a sequence that would be quite baffling without music. But it is also one of the best tracks in the score. And yes, I have to mention that Barry uses the Blaster Beam in this score, as a part of the baseline. It isn’t as obvious as Goldsmith’s work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture or even it’s use in Rosenman’s Lord of the Rings in 1978, but its synthetic tones add dimension to the score.

A genius or a madman? Can Durant really tell?
The cast for The Black Hole does a fine job with the roles. Maximilian Schell gets all the scene stealing moments, and his performance is a combination of ego and madness. He is a joy to watch, even if he gets a bit theatrical. While his performance overwhelms the rest of the cast at times, you also get a great pair of vocal performances by Roddy McDowall as V.I.N.CENT. and Slim Pickens as B.O.B. Yeah they are scripted a bit too cute, but both men give a lot of humanity to the robot roles and you actually care about the little guys. Robert Forester and Joseph Bottoms as LT. Pizer fit the heroic mold well, and are pretty straight-laced in the film. Bottoms gets a slightly more interesting part, as he’s rash youth that rushes in, and sometimes gets overmatched. Yvette Mimeux as Dr. McCrae is solid in her role, but it is one that doesn’t have a lot to do in the story, other than tie her to the crew of the Cygnus and be the object of rescue late in the film. Ernest Borgnine plays a street-smart reporter Harry Booth, who is out to get a good story, but also not willing to risk his life when things get too dangerous. He does a good job with the part. Anthony Perkins really throws himself into the interesting role of Dr. Durant. His character is seduced by the Cyngus’ power and scientific advancements. He sees a real boon to human knowledge if Reinhardt’s plan is successful. We can see his doubts as things start to get darker, but his struggle is very clear. We like him, and want him to make the right choice, but things turn out a bit differently when the robot Maximilian takes matters into his whirling blades.

Hell is unleashed!
Where The Black Hole falters is in the script and the final execution of the movie. As it is written, the Black Hole is a gothic mystery set in space. Our heroes are investigators who stumble upon a haunted mansion inhabited by a mad man. As they explore the mansion they realize that their lives and their souls are in danger and try to escape. But like any good horror story, several characters are unable to leave the fall of the house of Reinhardt. The madman and his servants are destroyed and consigned to hell. While our heroes remain pure and retain their souls, leaving darkness behind them.

Yeah I simplified it, but that is the basic structure of the story. This is Disney trying to make a horror film a few years before TheWatcher in the Woods.

Damnation eternal?
It is actually fascinating to dig into the script and identify all the little nods to gothic horror. I’d hazard that the characters name drop hell, the devil and evil more than any scientific concepts. Reinhardt is a the classic crazed noble, who literally sacrifices the souls of his people to obtain more and more arcane knowledge. He crafts a monster of his own design, the hulking red Maximilian, and grows to fear that creation. His fascination with the Black Hole is like a man fascinated with seeing into hell or perhaps sharing more with Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark who is convinced the Ark can be used to speak with God. What we come to understand is that Reinhardt is the Dr. Frankenstein of this tale. He destroys nature and the pure souls around him to aspire to meet God, and in doing so, damns himself.

Kate fights fire with lasers!
We have the makings of an interesting film, something along the lines of Event Horizon actually. But Disney never commits to the horror concept. Instead we have too many cute robot moments that break the tension, but in a way that is distracting instead of entertaining. The laser battles are all fun and exciting, but they seem shoehorned into a film that attempts to plumb into the depths of a mad man’s quest for God. When The Black Hole works best it is when it embraces its core of gothic horror. The crew of Palomino being pursued by Reinhardts robots, attempting to escape before the Cygnus is destroyed by flaming asteroids and then ripped apart by the spinning eye of a demon should have provided enough thrills for everyone. But this half and half approach ends up diluting the film as a whole, and confusing some viewers who came into the film expecting Star Wars or Star Trek and instead got a twisted take on Poe's Fall of the House of Usher.


Nothing sinister here either.
While I see some folks complain about scientific accuracy in The Black Hole I think they are missing the main theme of the story. It is not about the black hole at all. It is about one man’s drive to become more than human and how he destroys everything, including himself, to do it. Heavy stuff for a Disney movie. I end up appreciating the film’s many merits and its attempt at something greater. But I always wish that Disney had stuck to their core script and went for gothic horror in space. Combined with Alien also released in 1979, we could have had one hell of a terrifying combo of horror from beyond our stars.


The functional Palomino comes in for a landing.
The robot enforcers move in for the kill.


The massive control room for the Cygnus.


"You can trust me, my eyes are only lit this way for
dramatic effect.


Harry's nose for news tells him something is up.


V.I.N.CENT. and B.O.B. discuss Tigerbot magazine.

You know, Reinhardt spoiled Maximilian when he was
a little robot, and now he can't control him!


The red eye of doom in the center of the Black Hole.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

And Then This Happened... The Black Hole

Just because Maximilian Schell is playing the part with a bit of extra color doesn't mean it isn't a blast to watch. He has some great lines in The Black Hole and by the end of the movie you wonder just how much lead was in the scenery painting, because he is chewing a bit of it. But I tease Schell a little bit. The movie is much more fun because of his performance (and at least he isn't attempting Hamlet again). What caption do you have for this moment?

And then this happened...


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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Movie Musings: Does it Have to be a Trilogy?

"How could you forget about me, mate?"
So a few years back I wrote a blog asking where the adventure movies of the 80s and 90s went. I provided a pretty strict definition of "adventure movie". If you don't want to head back to that blog here is the definition:

I’m talking about something set in our world, maybe in the past, but a past where heroes still use their fists and their smart mouths to get out of trouble. The hero is usually on a quest of some kind, and there are obstacles to overcome and a girl to win over. While these movies have action, they are more about the exotic locations, overcoming the obstacles and getting away alive and with some kind of loot. 

Pretty basic right? Well I actually forgot an entire trilogy of movies in my examination back in 2011. The Pirates of the Caribbean films of the 2000s would fit perfectly in that group. Curse of the Black Pearl came out in 2003 and was followed up by Dead Man's Chest in 2006 and At Worlds End in 2007. This was a big series for that decade, right up there with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. This was Disney's fantasy adventure juggernaut and audiences went in droves to the films. One of the big reasons was Johnny Depp's unique and hilarious performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. But all three movies had tons of eye candy, top notch action sequences and a score by Hans Zimmer that has pretty much redefined what swashbuckling soundtracks should sound like.

So how the hell could I forget these movies? Easy, the sequels weren't all that good.

You don't know jack about Captain Jack (DDR style).
Curse of the Black Pearl is a fun movie. It takes the pirate film tropes, the adventure movie tropes and Disney movie tropes, scrambles them all around and twists them up in some entertaining and unique ways. Yes Johnny Depp's performance is key. But I argue that Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa is just as integral to the film. He is the foil to Sparrow, and has almost as many memorable lines as our roguish lead. He makes for a great villain, and one who has a reason to do what he does - to shed his undead state and live the life of a human again. The fluffy romance between Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly takes a backseat to the shenanigans of the pirates. It does provide a bit of a balance to the rest of the characters. The movie does overstay its welcome a little bit, but all in all, it is solid entertainment, and was a bit of a surprise hit when it came out.

Of course Disney is never one to miss a trick. So when the film's popularity blossomed they pulled in director Gore Verbinski to direct two more films, back to back to create a trilogy. This is not an uncommon practice. Back to the Future did this with some success. But so did The Matrix and most folks dismiss Reloaded and Revolutions as misguided and unnecessary.

"See what happens when you leave me out of your
bloody film? ARRRRRRR!"
I submit that the same fate befell the two pirates films. The first film was 143 minutes long. The second film 151 minutes long. The third film was 169 minutes long. The sequels make you feel every last minute. Dead Mans Chest  is especially bad. Geoffrey Rush only appears in cameo and new villain Davy Jones (played with verve by Bill Nighy) just doesn't cut the mustard. I also argue that the  two sequels have way too much Jack Sparrow in them. His cooky, crazy schtick gets really old really fast, especially without a good foil to play off of. You realize very quickly how much Rush added to the original film.

The visuals and production design remain impeccable, but the action scenes go on way too long (something that was a bit of a problem in Curse of the Black Pearl as well). As much as the movie tries to be fun, there just is a dowerness to the whole that the Davy Jones plot line adds that makes the films move at a crawl.

Um yeah, this is just too much - 169 minutes too much.
What is really strange is that Dead Man's Chest ends with Captain Jack Sparrow being killed and then awakening in a strange limbo in At Worlds End. (Oh and those scenes with multiple Jacks arguing with each other is visually kind of cool, but man was that just plain Johnny Depp overload.) Pretty much the same thing happens to Neo at the end of Reloaded and he starts in a subway station limbo in Revolutions. Where the creators of the Pirates movie doing an homage to the 2003 film? Or was it just a case of lazy screen writing?

Hard to say, but after seeing the borrowed scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I'm thinking they knew what they were doing. So we had a trilogy of adventure films in the 2000s. I'm not crazy about them, and still feel that the flawed Indiana Jones films are still better then either of those painful Pirates sequels. Yeah, I would even put Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ahead of Dead Man's Chest. Sadly, Disney won't let the Pirates films die, even after mediocre reviews for On Stranger Tides back in 2011. People keep going to see these films, and I'm guessing it is all the Depp fans out there.

I'd rather watch The Pirate Movie again, than watch those
sequels. No seriously, I would.

The thing is, studios need to stop with the spontaneous trilogies. Buried in the scripts for Dead Man's Chest and At Worlds End is a solidly entertaining film. It would probably run around 151 minutes or so, but with the fat cut out and the adventure focused on (and with Barbossa in a more prominent role) you could have had a sequel that matched the original film. But we get this messy trilogy instead. And studios still haven't learned their lesson. The Hobbit trilogy suffered the same bloated fate. The lesson is, focus on making a single great movie, unless you have a story worth telling in trilogy form. Sadly, Pirates of the Caribbean just wasn't that story.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Movie Musings: Where Have I Seen This Before? Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

So my wife and I enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl quite a bit. It is one of our Summer Movies. I capitalize those words because we have a group of Summer Movies in our collection. These are films that are fun, no brain entertainment that are perfect for lazy Sunday viewing when the weather gets warmer. Flicks like Pacific Rim, Jurassic Park, Transformers and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad all fall into that group.

Thing is as frequently as we'd watched the first Pirates film, we hadn't watched the two follow up pirates films of that trilogy since they were released on DVD (nearly ten years ago for Dead Man's Chest). We decided to give them a revisit and I've got a whole blog about that experience coming up. But I did want to post this little moment because it made me chuckle.





I mean this was done as an homage, right? They knew they were borrowing from one of the greats, right? This isn't another case of Independence Day ripping something off and trying to pass it off as its own, right? Lets give them the benefit of the doubt.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Score Sample: The Black Hole

So if you mention the name John Barry to a film score fan you'll probably hear about James Bond or Dances with Wolves, maybe even Out of Africa, The Lion in Winter or Somewhere in Time. But Barry actually scored a couple of science fiction films in the late 70s. I'm not sure if it is because he worked on Moonraker and that movie was a huge hit. Or maybe it was just the fact that Barry wrote some lovely orchestral scores over the years, and when John Williams brought orchestral scores back into vogue with Star Wars and Superman, guys like Barry were getting called on to handle science fiction.

In any case, Barry got to score the hilariously wonderfully bad space adventure Starcrash! I'm sure he made sure to mention that to all his friends. In 1979 he got a chance to work with my favorite electronic instrument - the Blaster Beam for the score to Disney's space adventure, The Black Hole. Barry's score is typical of his work at this time. It is very melodic, and has a slower pace that actually works great in the first half of the film, as mystery and tension is heightened. He creates a heroic theme that was used as the overture. But my favorite theme is the one he used for the power of the black hole. It is the Main Title and appears several times in the score. If you listen close you can hear the Blaster Beam working as the bass line. The strings creating a swirling effect and Barry keeps the pacing steady but relentless. Throw in some 1970s synths and you've got a classic main theme.