Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cave Dwellers (1984) – MST3K Review


In the distant past, not too far from where Conan was hanging out, lived the evil warlord Zor (David Cain Haughton). Because of his huge mustache or maybe because of his outrageous fashion sense he attacks the castle of the peace loving Akronas (Charles Borromel). Just when things seem bleak, Akronas sends his warrior daughter Mila (Lisa Foster) to seek out aid.

And that aid comes in the form of Ator (Miles O’Keefe), a hulking sword swinging hero who is also a master of inventions. With him is the trusty but silent force known as Thong (Chen Wong), who is as deadly with a blade as Ator. Mila finds Ator and convinces him to come to battle Zor. But the journey back is filled with perils. Zor has tricks up his sleeve and he’s not about to let Ator stop him. What this has to do with The Cave Dwellers is really anyone’s guess.

Movie Review:

I’ve mentioned it before, I’m a sucker for ‘80s fantasy. I love it all, including and especially the bad stuff. This stems back to being a kid where I would often watch the most bizarre looking films from my dad’s video story including Yor: The Hunter from the Future, Planet of the Dinosaurs and Ator: The Fighting Eagle.

So imagine my surprise when I ran into this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there is Miles O’Keefe as Ator running around. Turns out this is a sequel to The Fighting Eagle that was originally called: The Blade Master or Ator the Invincible. Either of those titles makes more sense than Cave Dwellers, but I digress.

Suffice to say that this hastily produced and executed follow-up fails in just about every way it can. Not to say that The Fighting Eagle didn’t have its problems. It was a clear rip off of Conan the Barbarian, but you can tell they actually tried to do some interesting stuff. The first film had more adventures along the way and a bit larger of a budget to work. So in many ways this sequel to the Ator films is like Conan the Destroyer - stinky in just about every respect.

Rumor has it that Cave Dwellers didn’t have a script and most of it was improvised on the spot. Wow. But you know what, that explains a lot about this movie. Let’s start with the basic plot. Old man Akronas creates some kind of… well, um, it’s a thing. You never get a good look at it, and it’s described in vague terms “It is everything and nothing.” Akronas feels that it can further the evolution of man, but fears what wicked men like Zor will do with it. Zor knows about this thing (called the Geometric Nucleus) and tries to take it. Akronas tells his daughter to go “to the ends of the earth” to find Ator.

Luckily it takes about three minutes of screen time to reach the ends of the earth, but takes about forty minutes to get back. If the journey is so dangerous, how come Mila survived it going to Ator in the first place? Even if you ignore all that, the adventures that occur coming back are less than impressive. You get invisible monsters, cannibal cavemen (the only possible source for the title Cave Dwellers), some rogue samurai, a cult of snake worshipers (Conan again!), and the final raid on the castle. Actually looking at the list, it sounds pretty cool, but the movie doesn’t have the budget or inclination to make any of it interesting.

Most of the costumes, sets and props look thrown together at the last minute or reused from other low budget productions. Some of this works OK, but most of the time you’re wondering why there are handrails in the castle that appears to be 1500’s Bavaria, when the voice over explained that this movie occurs in the dark ages. Why are there samurai running around, and yet the snake cult temple looks distinctly Mediterranean?

Ok, so I’m willing to just let all that go as long as the action is good and there’s some skimpy clothes. Well they got the skimpy clothes part right. Miles O’Keefe is in great shape and runs around mostly naked for the entirety of the film. He isn’t too bad in his action scenes, but there is also a distinct lack of fun being had. On the other end is Foster as Mila. She looks good in her warrior girl outfit, and tries her best during the fight scenes, but you can tell this is not her strong suit. She looks more like a ‘80s rock band groupie than a warrior woman.

For the best acting in Cave Dwellers we get Haughton as the over the top villain. His dialogue is ripe as moldy cheddar and he’s having a blast with it. He also seems a bit too interested in Ator, if you get my drift. It adds to the unintentional humor of the whole thing. Sadly he is more often paired with the dull and dry Borromel, who has endless scenes of exposition and says them in the most slow and dreary manner possible. Zor should have killed the old man off and injected some sparks into the plot.

The best scenes are when the movie attempts to embrace the fantasy. Ator and Thong’s battle against the invisible monsters is a bit of silly fun. But I enjoy the battle in the snake cult’s lair. The cultists have goofy weapons, including a snake whip! Then Ator tries to save Mila from the snake god, who turns out to be a big ass puppet. It’s great stuff.

But the piece that everyone remembers from this fine film is the Ator on a hang glider sequence. It comes out of nowhere, and propels the finale of the film. Not only is Ator on a hanglider swooping over the castle, but he’s also chucking bombs at Zor’s henchman. If the rest of Cave Dwellers had such great scenes in it, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to fans of bad ‘80s fantasy. Sadly, it’s the highlight. Even Ator’s final battle with Zor is lacking in energy.

But Joel and the bots are at hand to kick off their third official season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And Cave Dwellers is the perfect opener.

Episode Review:

While Joel and the bots handled a big glob of 80s sci-fi in the first season with Robot Holocaust, they never really got into the 80s fantasy scene – until Cave Dwellers. And boy do they hit the ground running. This is one of those direct to video releases, much like Pod People, that was released under another name by the video company and slapped with a new set of extremely low budget opening credits featuring footage from another movie. The guys go to town on this mocking the "shoebox format" of the screen as well as the bizarre action on display.

The entire opening scenes of Cave Dwellers consists of voice over, followed by random scenes of cave men. It has nothing to do with the movie, and is supposed to establish the setting (but once again, the cave men are hardly in the movie at all!). Joel and bots unleash with all kinds of hilarious cave man humor even referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as “the man who invented the wedgie”.

Once the movie meanders over to Mila and Akronas, the guys pick up on Foster’s valley girl accent and looks and continue to add lines for her throughout the film. My favorite being “Daaad, we’re all out of Avian.” But one of the funniest sequences in these early moments is when Akronas tells Ator’s life story to his daughter. This is comprised almost entirely of scenes from Ator the Fighting Eagle and edited so badly that it’s confusing as all hell. Tom even quips, “Tolkien couldn’t make sense of this plot”. The guys just let the jokes fire at nearly every quick scene that goes by and it’s one of the riffing high points of the entire Mystery Science Theater series.

After that most of the best quipping occurs around Zor and his over the top acting and lingering glances at Ator. I love the scene in the snake temple where Zor literally tosses his hair over his shoulder and marches out with his men, allowing Crow to say in a lispy voice, “Come on girls.” Haughton's intensity is appreciated not just for the movie in general but for all the great riff fodder he offers. Well, that and his awesome mustache and wig.

Most of the traveling scenes in the second half of the movie are a mixture of goofy and dull, and Joel and the bots are able to keep things funny. When the movie bogs down in slow exposition or walking scenes, the guys usually attack the pacing directly or add lines for Mila or Thong (who they constantly refer to as Dong, or Wong or Kong, before correcting themselves).

The highlights are the entire snake temple scene, which starts out very slowly, but allows the guys to riff on just about every character there (including a reference to an 8 sided dice!). Once the action scene kicks in with the evil puppet, it’s a real riff-a-palooza. But the best material is for the entire hanggliding scene, as Joel and bots tear apart every element of the scene including the music. Tom sings a song about Ator flying and ends with a line that I still quote to this day (especially if something intended as inspiring occurs in front of me), “Its not just Ator that’s flying – it’s the human spirit.” Thank you Tom.

The host segments are typical of the Joel years, with some silly stuff mixed in with observations on the movie. They start off coming up with new names; Tom wants to be called Mr. Tibbs. For the invention exchange Joel creates a smoking jacket with real smoke, and the Mad Scientists create robotic arm wrestling (inspired by the hit film Over the Top). At the fist break, Joel and bots recreate the opening credits with goofy music and slow motion. The next break they talk about fantasy names for ordinary objects. The third segment has Joel showing the bots how Foley works. When the movie ends, Joel and bots unleash their anger at all the continuity errors, contains the phrase “someone’s been four wheelin’”. The Mads reply with “What do you want from us, we’re evil… EVIL!”

As evil as the Mads are, they gave Joel and the bots a classic to work with. Easily one of my favorite episodes from Season Three, and while the movie does drag the riffing is able to keep it fun. If you haven’t seen Cave Dwellers yet and you enjoy ‘80s fantasy trash, then seek it out. I give it 5 Wongs, I mean Thongs, out of 5.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 2.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dr. No (1962)

Dr. No started the longest running franchise in movie history. It’s hard to step back and imagine seeing the movie for the first time, without ever knowing James Bond. So sitting down with Dr. No pits it against some serious expectations. But if you come at this film with a bit of history on your mind, you’ll find a very enjoyable sample of spy cinema in the early ‘60s.

After a British secret agent and his secretary are ruthlessly killed in Jamaica, Head of the British Secret Service, M (Bernard Lee) dispatches his best agent, James Bond (Sean Connery) to investigate. It seems that something mysterious is happening on Crab Key Island. Anyone who comes snooping around ends up dead. CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) suspects the infamous Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). As Bond investigates with the help of Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) and the lovely Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), he uncovers a plot to topple American rockets. Will he be able to stop it before it’s too late, or will Dr. No silence him first?

Good Points:
  • Sean Connery makes it his movie.
  • The settings in Jamaica and in Ken Adam’s sets are excellent.
  • The movie serves as a good introduction to the world of James Bond.
Bad Points:
  • Plays much more like a conventional thriller than a super spy film.
  • James Bond is the most fleshed out character.
  • Some of the visual effects are not convincing.
Viewed in comparison to its brothers Dr. No is an average James Bond adventure. Sean Connery’s acting and Terrance Young’s polished direction make the film work. While it’s an entertaining watch, it really serves as a starting point. The Bond movies of the ‘60s got better after this one, but it’s great to see the film that started it all.

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

In Depth Review

Dr. No is a tough film to review. I’m struggling to find the right perspective on it. Should I judge it against the other films of the MGM Bond series? Should I view it as the first of the series, and accept its limitations? I chose a balance between the two. I comparing it to the other films with the understanding that compared to the high tech visuals of The World is Not Enough, Dr. No was going to look primitive. But film basics can be judged easily enough.

The amazing thing about Dr. No is that you can see all the elements of the Bond formula being started here. The visuals are no exception. Location work takes place almost entirely in Jamaica, highlighting some of the most breath taking and visually exciting spots on the Caribbean island. Especially noteworthy are the Crab Key locations. The wonderful waterfalls that cascade down the beach are simply beautiful.

Luckily for the creators of the film Ken Adam was on hand to create his sets. Right from the beginning he presents a mixture of ultra-modern with larger than life visuals. The results have been sets that stand out in your mind (most obvious with his work on Fort Knox in Goldfinger and the volcano base in You Only Live Twice). Here he creates the casino in which we are introduced to Bond. It has the perfect mix of elegance and opulence that you expect in a Bond film. Perhaps the most memorable set from the film is Dr. No’s apartment. It set the standard for the look of a villain’s lair. His control room (where he faces off against Bond) is filled with screens, chrome metal, glowing lights and a huge illuminated globe.

As nifty as these sets are, one always stands out to me whenever I see it. It’s the room where Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) reports to Dr. No. It’s a large, round room with a grid skylight that forms an interesting web like shadow on the wall. There is a single chair on one side of the room where Dent is interrogated. On the other side is the table with the poisonous spider. This single image of Professor Dent in this cold and dangerous room always enters my mind when someone mentions Dr. No.

Unfortunately modern audiences are going to find some faults in the film. Most of this comes from the dated effects work. The worst offender is the rear projection used in the car chase. It’s so fake looking that I felt bad for Sean having to react to the silliness as if he was in real danger. The other element is the “dragon” that appears in the film. It just looks out of place in what is mostly a gritty thriller. Maybe in a later Roger Moore film it would have worked. It always surprises me when that “dragon” shows up. I keep blocking that part out.

The sound work for the most part it’s really good. This is a Bond movie so the explosions, hand to hand battles and bullets should sound good. Dr. No starts the fine Bond tradition of having the villain’s lair explode at the end of the movie. As far as explosions go, this is a good one. There are a few minus points though. Obviously the sound work is a bit dated, and lacks the clarity and crispness of later films. Also there is a strange… I don’t know… groovy sound effect when Bond is inside the air ducts attempting to escape from Dr. No’s cell. It’s a weird moment. I’m also not crazy for the music box sound effect for the gunbarrel sequence. This odd tinkling sound effect is dropped for the familiar gunbarrel music in From Russia With Love.

That brings me to the score. There are two key elements to the music of Dr. No. One is the use of Jamaican bands and songs. The most used song is “Underneath the Mango Tree”. Memorably, Honey Rider sings it when she first appears. It also finds its way into the score, popping up here and there, especially when Bond is interacting with the gals. There’s also the infectious “Jump Up” song played at the bar scene.

But the real stand out is Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme. It is used for the opening titles and makes an immediate impression. According to what I’ve pieced together (and I could be wrong), Monty Norman actually recycled a song he had written for a musical into the James Bond theme. He gave the piece to John Barry who orchestrated it into the theme we know today. There has been much argument over who really wrote the James Bond theme. In a way it’s telling that John Barry was asked back to work on the James Bond film scores in From Russia with Love and beyond. Monty Norman gets song credit. With that said, the James Bond theme is used a lot in this movie: too much. It seems to be the only bit of music that they really had on hand for the action scenes. But compared to the fully scored films (and John Barry’s work in particular) the music is only average for a Bond movie. But that theme is really something else.

Dr. No is probably the most James Bond centric of the early Bond films. The movie falls almost completely on Connery’s shoulders and he is up to the task. His introduction in the casino is classic. You understand just about everything you need to know about him in that scene and the way he plays against Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). As the film continues you learn more and more about Bond. With the final confrontation with Dent, we have the completely fleshed out character of James Bond. Then it’s off to Crab Key for the adventure part of the story.

Connery is suave and cool with an undercurrent of intensity. At this point Bond wasn’t the superman he would evolve into, so there is fear and anger in his performance, especially after Dr. No captures him. Connery is solid as Bond in his first time out and he would improve in each film, reaching the definitive portrayal in Goldfinger. That third film adds to the performance is a layer of supreme confidence that would be taken to ridiculous extremes by the time You Only Live Twice rolled around. Here James Bond is more realistic, more gritty and more believable. Does he capture the role as presented in the books? Not really. Timothy Dalton really nailed that aspect of the character, turning James Bond into a brooding agent who was very good at his job, but held a darkness within him. Connery never seems to capture that darkness. But the scripts don’t really call for that. It’s interesting to compare the performance of Bond in this film with 2006 reboot, Casino Royale. There are many similarities. The main difference is that the newer film has a script that puts Bond through his paces, something that Connery never really enjoyed.

In most James Bond films, the main three performances are James Bond, the main Villain and the love interest. In Dr. No, James Bond overshadows everyone else. He is given the most screen time and the most fleshed out part. This renders even the key parts of villain and love interest as more of a supporting role than anything else.

With little to do but look sexy and follow Bond around Ursula Andress does the best she can with the part of Honey Rider. She’s merely the beautiful woman that Bond encounters, saves and ends up with at the end. The movie can be sliced into thirds and each third has a Bond girl in it. Andress just happens to be the one at the end of the film and gets the title of Bond Girl. She’s good, but far from the best of the ‘60s. Her iconic walking out of the sea still has a great impact, but after that, she’s little more than eye candy.

Joseph Wiseman makes Dr. No as interesting and menacing as possible for such an underwritten part. Wiseman’s screen presence is undeniable. The best dialogue in the film is the banter with Bond during the dinner scene. Wiseman also set the standard for the cultured, calm and dangerous villain that would be associated with Bond. It’s a shame that he wasn’t introduced in a later film where his character could have really been explored and probably yielded a greater performance. He remains memorable as a villain, but in the long line he gets overshadowed.

Bond’s supporting team in London makes their first appearance here. Bernard Lee establishes M right off the bat. He plays the part with a crisp no nonsense fashion. He is very much a soldier, one who knows the job, and sends his best man to get it done. Lois Maxwell also nails the part of Miss Moneypenny. Her banter with Bond is classic stuff and set the example for all her future appearances (up to 1985’s A View to a Kill). Rounding out the cast is Peter Burton as Major Boothroyd. In his only appearance in the Q part he does a solid job. The part is very dry and wouldn’t be spiced up until Goldfinger with a stellar performance by Desmond Llewelyn.

Filling out keys roles in the supporting cast are a capable Jack Lord as Felix Leiter. He’s good, but not particularly stand out. Of the ‘60s actors who played the role, he’s probably the best one. Anthony Dawson is very good as the dangerous Professor Dent. John Kitzmiller gets a fairly good role as Quarrel. It’s a bit condescending now (the poor islander superstitious about the cursed island) but he plays the part well enough that you feel bad when Quarrel meets his fate.

For the women you get two more good parts. Eunice Gayson is the playful gambler Sylvia Trench. Her repartees with Bond in the Casino, as well as her brief scene in his flat are great character moments. She also returned in From Russia with Love. For the part of the femme fatale, you get Zena Marshall as Miss Taro. She mixes sex appeal and cunning. You know she’s up to something and it provides another test for Bond to pass.

Finally I have to acknowledge director Terrance Young. According to many, Young was responsible for so much of the look and feel of Dr. No, that the James Bond franchise really owes him an enormous debt. He polished Sean Connery’s performance, giving him the smoothness to hide the rugged survivor underneath. He gave the dialogue a little flair, adding bits about the champagne, the clothes, even the cigarettes used by the characters in the film. Most of all he crafted a movie that had all the adventure, sex appeal, danger and fun that the producers wanted. My only issue with Young’s work on the film is the pacing. Part of this is the exposition heavy first half of the script, but part of it is just how Young paced his films. The next two Bond films he worked on From Russia with Love and Thunderball have the same problems. They slow down quite a bit around the exposition, but work very well in character driven or action driven scenes. I must say that the James Bond films of Terrance Young are superior to the most of the following Bond films with the exception of Peter Hunt ‘s work in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Obviously I enjoyed Dr. No. Some of it come from seeing how the Bond franchise started and knowing where it’s gone and where it is. But beyond all that, it’s an entertaining film. It has James Bond as a spy in a thriller. It’s got a danger to it that would carry over into the next film. It’s a refreshing change from some of the more comic book-like adventures that followed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

DVD Verdict - First Anniversary

It’s true, I’ve been writing for one of my favorite movie review sites for a full year. That adds up to 100 reviews (after the two DVDs I’ve got sitting in front of my TV get write ups). Frankly, I’ve had a great time writing for the site. I’ve seen some excellent movies and documentaries. I’ve also endured some painful crap. I have to give my wife and cat full marks for enduring most of these with me.

To celebrate, I figured I’d create this little page of links to some of my favorite reviews and movies. Now keep in mind, I may not have liked a particular movie, but I might have had fun with the review. So if you haven’t already read some of these, follow the links, give them a read and don’t forget to click the little link at the bottom of the page to vote on whether I did a good job or not. You can also Like them via Facebook if you feel the urge.

The first review I wrote was for Instant Expert: Egypt, a documentary series intended for schools that was essentially new packaging for Egypt: Engineering an Empire.

The following were some of the best movies I reviewed:

The following are some of the best documentaries I watched:

Some of the movies or shows that I had low expectations for, but received a pleasant surprise:

Best Anime series I watched:

My favorite reviews:

The most painful things I had to watch:

And that just about covers it. You can check out more of my reviews from my Dossier page over at the Verdict. I'm looking forward to another year as a staff writer for the site.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Millennium Actress (2001)

After adapting Perfect Blue from a novel, director Satoshi Kon decided to take on an original story. While it has similar themes to his first animated feature, Millennium Actress is a more ambitious film in many ways. So lets dive into the second full length feature by Kon and see where it takes us.

Genya Tachibana (Shozo Izuka) wants to create a documentary about his favorite actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shoji). The problem is no one has seen her in years. Some sleuthing reveals her hideaway and he is able to meet with her. Chiyoko is willing to talk about her life, especially when Genya gives her a mysterious key which she lost in the film studio many years earlier.

As she tells the story of her life and the Japanese film industry something extraordinary happens. Genya and his hapless assistant are pulled into the story – quite literally. At first the two men are genuinely confused, as they stand in the frigid snow of late ‘30s Japan. But soon Genya dives in, taking key roles in Chiyoko’s life story with relish. As her tale continues, the lines between her story, the reality around them blurs. The significance of the little key is made vital. For all those listening to the story, they realize this is the last performance of the Millennium Actress.

Good Points:
  • Creative visuals and editing
  • Chiyoko is a great character
  • The finale is especially poignant
Bad Points:
  • Budget limitations affect some of the animation
  • The humor is not going to work for everyone
  • The jumping storyline is going to annoy some viewers
Kon’s dynamic visual and storytelling sense is hard at work here. He keeps the story moving by melting the lines between the movies Chiyoko starred in and the story she is telling. And under all the nods to classic Japanese films and fun adventures there’s a lot of heart and humor. Competes for the top spot in Kon’s filmography.

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

In Depth Review
2001 brought us my personal favorite animated film from Japanese master, Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away. The movie not only grabbed all my attention that year, but also won an Academy Award for best animated film. It deserved it no doubt. Little did I know I was missing out on Kon’s sophomore effort in the full-length feature department. I ended up discovering this film on DVD a couple years later and what a find.

Millennium Actress is what cemented me as a fan of his work. All the stylistic elements and themes that he introduced in Perfect Blue are present here but expanded upon. In addition we get to see a new side to the director, his sense of humor and his heart. While Perfect Blue focused on bloody sexy thrills, Millennium Actress is all about nostalgia. It’s a story about the past, and the joy and sadness that entails.

Like Mima from Perfect Blue, Chiyoko is the center of the story – a woman who is used to having people watch her. But for Chiyoko, her life as an actress was a pleasure. Kon does an interesting thing here, having Chiyoko as her older self (in her 70s or so) tell the tale to Genya. As the story continues we see it in a flashback form. At least we assume it’s a flashback – until we see Genya and his assistant standing in the snow of Chiyoko’s village back in the 1930s. They are just as surprised to be there as we are surprised to see them. Much like Scrooge from A Christmas Carol they cannot be heard or seen. So they watch the memory unfold and comment on the action. These moments are pretty funny, and Kon’s animation team gives the two men some great expressions to match their dialogue.

But what is most interesting here is that Genya and his pal treat these memories as movies. The assistant is always filming the memories, as if they are going to be part of the documentary. But he is never completely pulled into what he sees. His cynical nature provides for some great one-liners, but also is a contrast to his boss.

Genya reacts as he does whenever he watches any of Chiyoko’s work. He is a devoted fan and is stunned to be watching these memories play out. He ends up cheering her on and even crying in sympathy when the young Chiyoko loses her first love and is only left with the small metal key.

The funny thing is you are watching two men watch a memory like a movie about an actress. How many levels is that?
But Kon goes a step further. Once Chiyoko starts working on films, the presentation twists again. Many times the films she works on mirror what is going on in her life. So we’ll be watching a memory with Genya. He’ll make a comment and then a voice yells “cut”, and the “memory” we just saw turns out to be a scene in her movie. And vice versa. But when these events are referenced later in the film, they turn out to be both films she worked on as well as an event that occurred in her life. This is very reminiscent of Perfect Blue where Mima was mixing reality with her work on Double Bind. But here the effect isn’t sinister, but ties to the theme of Chiyoko’s life being so connected to films that it becomes a movie.

This element is the main one that ends up confusing and frustrating viewers of the film. When I do see negative reviews of it, its mostly because the viewer loses patience with the constant altering of reality. For me its an amazing ride, an done done with animation, but using techniques that you see most often in film: editing, camera placement and acting. Kon and his crew had to plan each shot of this film with the utmost care and get the animation just right, so we could see from the characters visual cues, which scenes were real and which were not. I love animation’s ability to flesh out new worlds and create the impossible. But this is a subtly you just don’t see too often, and the way its employed here in an animate medium is really something else.

For those who do get confuse while watching Millennium Actress, Kon provides some clues. Genya is just like us, confused by the constant switches in reality. But after a few sequences, he gets into it, cheering from the sidelines or even better, getting caught up in the action. This is what Kon is telling us to do. Forget logic and reality. Just go with the story, get pulled in and enjoy the flow. Genya embodies this by going from watcher to active participant. He literally becomes some of the key characters in Chiyoko’s memories/films. Most often he comes to her rescue at a key moment, dressed in some outrageous outfit (but perfectly natural for the memory/film). My favorite scene with him is during the time when Chiyoko films a Kurosawa inspired samurai epic. He suddenly appears as her devoted samurai general who is willing to do anything to save her. If you’ve seen Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa the scene is even funnier.

Genya is an interesting character in a lot of ways. Basically he’s a middle-aged fan boy. He grew up idolizing Chiyoko and knows quite a bit about her. We begin to wonder why he wants to make this documentary in the first place. He’s too kind hearted to be a stalker like Mr. Me-mania from Perfect Blue. The truth is that he knows more about Chiyoko than she really guesses. For Genya this last storytelling session with her is a bit of closure. As the movie goes along Genya goes from comedic audience surrogate to a main player in her life story, even though she didn’t know it at the time. It’s a great twist that stays true to the characters and leads into the poignant finale.

But the reason Millennium Actress works is the fact that Chiyoko is really a great character. In the film three different voice actresses perform her character: one for the scenes where she is a child, one for her adult years and the final one for the elderly version. But the casting is top notch, each woman sounding like a natural extension of the previous. Kon’s character design is also masterful, again skewing more toward the realistic than the typical anime look. Chiyoko looks like the same woman as she grows up, and this allows us to feel like we are watching her life story unfold in reality, film and in her mind.

Like Citizen Kane there is a mystery at the heart of the story. Genya is able to interview Chiyoko because he found a small metal key she lost long ago. He returns it to her and it triggers a whole bunch of memories. The story of how she got the key and the search it lead her on is fused to the reason why she became an actress. Throughout the story the key is a MacGuffin, but one that actually has a neat payoff.

There are so many things I could write about that this review could be endless. This movie has a lot of little treats hidden away, moments of amazing visual power and a great musical score that works perfectly with it (as long as you don’t mind Vangelis style electronics). It also helps if you know a bit about Japanese film. There’s a ton of little nods to the movies of Akira Kurosawa as well as Godzilla. But if I keep talking about the movie, it will spoil some of the surprises and it’s really a movie that plays out better as you make the discoveries on your own.

As of this writing, this movie is still available on DVD in the US. Dreamworks picked up the distribution rights and gave it a pretty solid presentation.

As much as I like Perfect Blue and appreciate how it is an amazing first feature, Millennium Actress is a superior film. It delves deeply into Kon’s take on reality and memories, something that will pop up again in Paranoia Agent as well as Paprika. But most of all it introduced us to his humor. This takes center stage in his next film Tokyo Godfathers, and would turn warped and dark in Paranoia Agent and Paprika
But here Kon presents an ode to nostalgia, the memories of the past colored by our loss and the need to look past our history and into the future wherever that journey may lead. If my description of Perfect Blue turned you off, I suggest you start with Millennium Actress instead. It’s got all the visual elements I love about Kon and has a great story at heart of it too, can’t go wrong there.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The A-Team (2010)


Why does Hollywood keep taking old television series and turning them into feature films? Did they learn nothing from The Beverly Hillbillies debacle? So when I heard that the ‘80s cheesefest The A-team was getting a big screen treatment I waved it off as stupid. But then I read a few negative reviews and was surprised. People didn’t like it, but not because it was a goofy idea, but because it wasn’t serious enough… um, did they watch the original show? So I figured I’d check the movie out and see what went wrong.


The story begins when Hannibal (Liam Neeson) is on a mission to save his pal Face (Bradley Cooper) from the clutches of a Mexican drug lord. Along the way he teams up with B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) and Murdock (Sharlto Copley). They form a great team that quickly becomes the best of the best in U.S. Military.

But things take a turn for the nasty after the group is accused of killing a General during the Iraq war. Not about to take this lying down the group escapes from their prisons and goes on a mission to prove their innocence. Along the way they have to navigate their way past a mysterious CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and the determined intelligence officer Sosa (Jessica Biel). Is there any way for the A-Team to get out of this one?

Good Points:

  • Captures the fun spirit of the show
  • Our leading men do a good job with the parts
  • Has some solid action set pieces

Bad Points:

  • The plot is a little too convoluted
  • The origin story structure slows the film down
  • Needed a few more action scenes


This was a fun action movie, just like the show was. It’s got a good mix of humor and thrills to make it the perfect weekend rental. The cast is having a blast and brings a lot of energy to a script that gets a little too complicated for its own good. The use of CG to add scope was a bit disappointing, I would have like to see more stunt driving (a staple of the show), but all in all, worth checking out for action fans looking for a nostalgic blast.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 5

Acting: 3

Script: 3

Music: 3

Direction: 4

Entertainment: 3

Total: 3

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The H Man (1958)


I can’t remember where I first heard about this movie, but each time its brought up I hear the same description: Gooey. So when I was slated for a screening on TCM I had to see it. Because who doesn’t love a gooey monster?


Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara) is convinced that radioactive testing has not only produced Godzilla, but also created a bizarre liquid life form. This “H Man” not only oozes all over its prey but also turns them into a similar liquid glop. He tries to convince Inspector Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata) of this, but the Inspector has other fish to fry. He’s involved in a dangerous case involving drug runners and gangsters. The key to his case is Chikako Arai (Yumi Shirakawa), who may have witnessed a murder. But this murder may have been committed by none other than The H Man.

Good Points:

  • Some awesome gooey effects
  • The idea of combining this with a gangster film is inspired
  • Some creepy moments

Bad Points:

  • Lots of padding scenes
  • The execution of combining this with a gangster film is poor
  • The finale ends on the flat side


This is one of those movies that has a great idea, some really cool visuals and the potential for a lot of fun. But the end result is a little too dull. The gangster subplot weighs the story down. The finale has potential and yet seems to just whimper out. Monster film fans should check it out for the gooey creatures, but keep your riffing skills handy.

Scores (out of 5)

Visuals: 4

Sound: 3

Acting: 3

Script: 3

Music: 3

Direction: 3

Entertainment: 3

Total: 3

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