Saturday, September 29, 2012

Movie Music Musings: Favorite Composers - Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann

In the previous installment of my Favorite  Composers series I covered the work of Japanese composer Yoko Kanno. My interest in Japanese anime is what introduced her work to me. But for the this installment, I go back to my childhood and some of my favorite films and the music that accompanied them.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I like my film music big and bold. In the golden age of film scores it was harder to get bigger or bolder than Bernard Herrmann. His work is often sighted as inspiration for most modern film composers and it is not hard to see why. He creates memorable themes, used creative instruments and even invented styles of scoring that have become modern movie music clichés. Sure that may not seem like praise, but the reason these become clichés is because they worked so damn well in the first place.

You want that classic 1950s sci-fi sound? Herrmann created it for The Day the Earth Stood Still. The nifty uses of the Theremin (that electronic instrument that sounds like synthetic ghost) gave the film a unique voice. It works so well in the film, building tension and adding that touch of mystery to keep the viewer off balance.  Of course it inspired countless sci-fi films from that point on, even Danny Elfman’s parody score Mars Attacks. But when you listen to the original score in context (and even as a stand alone) it really is a remarkable achievement.

Want another famous movie moment? Herrmann was Alfred Hitchcock’s composer of choice for many years. Their most famous collaboration also lead to one of the most famous movie music moments of all time. The stabbing “Herrmann strings” used so diabolically in Hitchock’s Psycho.

This technique has been parodied and borrowed so often it’s hard to remember when it was fresh. But the impact of the music with that scene was so powerful that it is still heard to this day. You’ll hear it in television commercials for toilet paper and even in shows like Hell’s Kitchen when Gordon Ramsey discovers something horrifying. Overused, sure. But I can’t blame Herrmann for that.  

Herrmann also composed one of the most effective love themes for a Hitchcock film. Here we have Scene D’Amour from Vertigo. The music for this film adds to much to the visuals and the acting, leading up to the climax which is one of Hitchcock’s most memorable. This love theme is so effective that it was borrowed for the score to The Artist in 2011.

Herrmann also provided the score to one of the most acclaimed cinematic films of all time: Citizen Kane. While the score is relatively short, the moments where Orson Welles chose to include music are very effective. This score shows one of my favorite of Herrmann’s abilities, to write big and powerful scores, and yet never overpower the film. He always manages to compliment what you are seeing. He wasn’t adverse to using atmosphere and tone as well as strong melodies and themes. The suite below is a bit long, but provides a strong variety of the music from Citizen Kane as well as a taste of what Herrmann could do to create mood. Amazing for his first official film score assignment.

Herrmann’s career was long and varied. He did work for television, including episodes for The Twilight Zone, and Gunsmoke. His final film score was Taxi Driver in 1981. But what really brought him to my attention was his work on the adventure films of Ray Harryhausen. Herrmann provided scores for The7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island  and The 3 World of Gulliver.

Lots of folks will tell you that Jason and the Arognauts is the best of the group. It’s hard to argue when you’ve got this great opening credits music. Herrmann took the rhythmic drumming used to pace the rowing Argonauts in the film, and based the heroic Argonaut theme off of it.

However, I have to recommend The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as the best place to start with Herrmann. He keeps true to his style with big bold music, and one of the best opening titles for an adventure movie.

The score continues on with a love theme for the princess and Sinbad, mysterious music for the island of Colassa, a bombastic bit of music for a battle aboard the ship, a dance for the cobra woman and themes for just about every stop motion creature encountered in the film.  My favorite music is the powerful music for the Cyclopes. It lumbers and thunders around, using a real anvil as percussion. Give this score a spin and you’ll probably be hooked on Herrmann as well. Below is a sample of his music for the Cyclopes.

Next time we’ll go back to the present with one of my favorite contemporary composers. He’s got a knack for adapting classic film and television themes, but he also has a great style all his own. The folks at Pixar figured this out and hired him to compose music for some of their most well loved films. It was work on Up that got Michael Giacchino his first academy award, and I doubt it will be his last.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Living Daylights (1987)

Roger Moore left the series after A View To A Kill and as much as some people loved him, it was time for a change.  And what a change!  Timothy Dalton stepped in and made James Bond his own.  He read the novels by Ian Fleming and recreated the spy’s character. The result was a James Bond we have only seen a few times before.  Was the audience of 1987 ready for the gritty and deadly world of espionage presented in The Living Daylights?

British secret service agent, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) finds himself embroiled in a complex scheme when he helps Russian General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect.  Koskov enjoys freedom for a couple days but is smuggled from England by the mysterious Necros (Andreas Wisniewski).  Bond attempts to find out more about Koskov and encounters Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo), cello player and Koskov’s lover.  Things get really complicated when it seems that Koskov is not back in Russia at all, but is in Moracco!  And that’s just the beginning of this dangerous adventure that will lead Bond from Vienna to Afghanistan.  Joe Don Baker and John Rhys-Davies fill in key roles.

Good Points:
  • Timothy Dalton nails the role in his first outing.
  • Some of the best action scenes in any James Bond film
  • John Barry provides his swan song score – and it’s a doozy.

Bad Points:
  • The script is really uneven.
  • The villains are less then threatening
  • Wow, the opening theme… wow. 

When this movie is hitting it’s high points, it provides some of the best of James Bond. Dalton is excellent in the role. It’s a shame the script is such a mess. A plot that flails around with villains who aren’t very menacing ends up robbing the film of an effective punch. If the movies were feeling a bit stagnant, then this film provides a nice balance of the new and the old. Well worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it in a while.

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

In Depth Review

The 1980s started off with the excellent with For Your Eyes Only.  Roger Moore delivered what can be argued as his best performance in a Bond film. But the films after that just weren’t able to follow up well. Octopussy is a mess of a film. Never Say Never Again feels lackluster in many ways. A View to a Kill is nearly as goofy as Moonraker. Moore himself was feeling long in the tooth and decided to bow out for the next film. The producers had to recast the lead, something they had been dreading ever since the perceived disaster of OnHer Majesty’s Secret Service.

Looking at it now we could have ended up with Pierce Brosnan in 1987. He could have carried on Roger Moore’s legacy.  The Living Daylights could have been a different movie in tone and feel.  But the fates aligned against Pierce and instead Timothy Dalton stepped up the part and grabbed it with both hands.  I think it was needed.  We got hard-edged and visceral.  The ‘80s closed with James Bond as a spy with a license to kill, not to quip.  He was dangerous in every sense of the word.  It was the first time the films were truly close to Ian Fleming’s creation as far as the character of James Bond is concerned.

Visually this is one of the more exciting James Bond films.  A concerted effort was made to bring the real life into the series.  It takes us back to the look from For Your Eyes Only and avoids some of the over the top elements of the two previous films. The sets by Peter Lamont are well done, and inject the film with some solid visuals.  These include the interior of the Hercules, Kamran Shah’s headquarters, and the interiors of the English retreat where Koskov is snatched up.

It is the stunning locations that make the visual work stand out.  The movie opens in Gibraltar, providing a gorgeous backdrop to one of the best pre-credit sequences of the series.  Vienna gets shown off with lots of great scenes especially the key scenes at Prater park. The city also doubles as Bratislava for the scenes where Koskov escapes from the Eastern Block.  Morocco was used to double as Afghanistan for the movies third half and is very effective. Let’s not forget Tangiers where Bond confronts General Pushkin, and the scheming Whitaker.  Each location is used with a balance of the exotic and the intriguing.

A return to reality requires more realistic sound effects.  Typically in James Bond films the actions scenes get the most attention.  The sound work is excellent in the pre-credit sequence, as well as the chase in the Austin Martin, and the final battle between Bond and Necros.  However quieter scenes offer plenty of atmosphere to the film.  The orchestra scenes in Vienna work wonderfully.  And the scenes in Afghanistan balance the action and atmosphere very well.

The big story with the acting was Timothy Dalton as James Bond.  I’ve already mentioned that Dalton’s take on the character was more serious and intense than Moore’s.  He has been called humorless, wooden, and uninteresting.  However, I think most of these are in direct comparison to Roger and Pierce’s work in the part.  Both Roger and Pierce chose to underline the humor of the part.  In their own way, they created a Bond persona that was charming and casual about his job. Dalton took it one step further.  He was a killer, and one who didn’t like killing.  He wasn’t afraid of his job.  He understood it all too well.  However, he knew that no amount of charm could hide the blood on his hands.

This was the James Bond of the novels.  He was a gentleman, but he was a killer.  He knew it and the reader knew it.  In Dalton’s two films, the audience knows it too.  I think that made people uncomfortable.  This is not a James Bond you could hang out with by the pool and strike up a conversation with (Moore and Brosnan were more accessible).  This would be a man you saw sitting in a bar with a vodka martini, intriguing, alluring, but dangerous.  Some have argued that this is all well and good, but it’s not something the movie going public wanted to see.  I don’t agree. I think Dalton does an excellent job.  He’s believable and honest in his portrayal.  We can read so much in his acting because he is doing more than following the script.  He’s invested in the character.  The big difference between Dalton’s first film and the first films of Connery, Lazenby, Moore and Brosnan is that Dalton was James Bond from the moment we see him in The Living Daylights.

Dalton’s new take can either be seen as fresh and exciting or as a selfish attempt to change what was a winning formula.  I find the “selfish” theory amusing.  He would not have been hired if the creators of the series had not wanted to take the character in a new direction. The same thing happened in 2006 with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.  The series needs to be refreshed or it will grow stale (see the early 70’s films).  Most James Bond fans can go back and watch Dalton’s films and enjoy them.  It’s only the actor-centric fans that can’t let go.

Maryam d’Abo plays Kara Milovy in the film.  I’ve encountered a real mixed reaction to her performance and the character.  Some have called her a bimbo along the lines of Goodnight from Man with the Golden Gun.  Others have called her strong and independent.  Instead I think we have one of the most normal Bond women in all of the movies.  She’s an average girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances.  She’s not a CIA operative, or a diamond smuggler, or a circus pilot.  She just plays a cello in an orchestra, and has fallen in love with a General.  She’s not a bimbo.  She’s just naïve and maybe a little desperate.  Any normal girl put into her situation would probably react in a similar way.  D’Abo plays the part with a mixture of sweetness and naiveté that suits the character.  She also plays the romance scenes with enough believability that we can see her falling for Bond, even if she’s still faithful to Koskov. In response we can understand Bond’s desire to protect her (even if her good looks first catch his eye).  In some ways, this normal character can become lost among the more glamorous and assertive Bond girls. I can’t fault the acting, d’Abo plays it perfectly.

We get a trio of villains in this film.  Let’s start with the henchman, Necros first.  The name alone implies two things.  He is death and he sounds more at home in a less serious Bond film.  But look beyond the name and you have the best henchman of the 80’s.  Andreas Wisniewski was a dancer by trade and his stature, presence and movement make him the perfect physical foil for Bond.  We see him in action early in the film when he snatches Koskov away from M16, and we understand just how deadly he is.  He doesn’t say much but he doesn’t need to.  His motivations are a bit murky, but really he’s just around to be the blunt instrument to get things done.  Wisniewski executes his part perfectly.

Jeroen Krabbe makes an interesting villain in Koskov.  He’s slick, he’s smarmy and he’s only out for himself.  As the part is written, Krabbe plays it to the hilt.  He’s amusing in several early scenes, especially when interacting with Bond.  But once the plot begins twisting and Koskov’s motives are revealed, he is still played for laughs.  I’m not sure how much of this is due to the written character, or the performance.  Koskov is never threatening.  He’s more of sleaze than anything else.  It would have been infinitely more effective if his slickness was an act, and he was a cold cruel person underneath.  Then his fate to shipped home in a diplomatic bag would have been more effective.

And then there’s Whitaker, the egotistical American arms dealer played by Joe Don Baker.  Baker’s got about one speed, but he’s good at it. He’s a blowhard in this part, full of bluster and aggression, but acting more like a big kid than a big threat. He’s more likable than Mitchell, but he’s not a terribly interesting character. Baker got to do more in Goldeneye.

There is a large supporting cast to help balance out the weakness of the villains.  John Rhys-Davies is one of my favorite character actors.  He well cast as General Pushkin.  His first appearances in the film imply menace (with no dialogue).  Once the plot has twisted and we realize he is on Bond’s side, he does a great job, even making a key appearance at the end of the film.  Art Malik is also good as Kamran Shah, leader of the Afghan resistance.  It’s a bit uncomfortable now to be rooting for this likable leader.  In the back of your mind you wonder if this type of man would have become one of the leaders of the Taliban.  As MI6’s man in Vienna, Thomas Wheatley injects the character of Saunders with enough stodgy British-ness to play well off Dalton.

The London crew in The Living Daylights returns with a minor twist.  Robert Brown has played M since Octopussy.  He’s a bit dry and crusty, but he works well as a grumpy foil to 007.  Desmond Llewelyn is still reliable as Q.  It’s Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny that seems strange.  I don’t know what it is about her performance, but she is often forgotten when the London cast in mentioned, and I can see why.  I always forget about her till she shows up in the Dalton films.

John Barry came back for his final scoring job in a James Bond film.  For many people this is one of the best James Bond scores that Barry ever did.  It’s a great mixture of brassy orchestrations, and the introduction of electronic sounds to a Bond score.  It’s the precursor to what David Arnold ended up doing when he took over scoring duties in Tomorrow Never Dies.  In addition to the score, Barry helped write three pop songs for the film.  Ah Ha performs the theme song The Living Daylights.  Musically it’s OK, but the lyrics are stupid and the singer’s voice just doesn’t work for a Bond theme.  Better suited are The Pretenders with Where Has Everybody Gone.  This theme is used for Necros and can be heard when he strangles his victims with his headphones.  But my favorite pop piece is If There Was a Man, also performed by The Pretenders.  This tune is played during the end credits, but it also appears (in orchestral form) during the films more romantic scenes.  Barry combines all three themes really well and also manages to use the classic 007 sound for the rest.  The balance achieved is really one of Barry’s best.  Just be warned that the oh-so-‘80s drum machine is in full force here.

While the movie does tend to get a bit plot-centric at times, that doesn't mean there is a lack of action. The pre-credit sequence is one of the best, with Bond attempting to stop an assassin from escaping from the cliffs of Gibraltar.  The stunt work is impressive and Dalton is quite obviously involving himself as much as possible. The next big set piece is the car chase, with the classic gadget mobile versus an entire Soviet army. You get driving on road, on ice and into the snow with this one. The final set piece is where Bond faces down Necros on the airborne Hercules. Again, the stuntwork really shines, as both men end up hanging on a net as it flaps behind a real plane. A great scene, well filmed and executed.

The major weak point of the whole film is the script.  So much potential is here, but I wonder if things ended up getting diluted in rewrites (especially since they ended up switching actors at least three times).  The script spends so much time setting up and resolving the plot is that characters suffer.  The villains are the ones that get it this time.  Both Koskov and Whitaker are rough sketches and don’t ever present a threat to anyone in particular.  Also suffering are characters like Pushkin and Saunders. A plot point that seems to be completely lost is the one involving Felix Leiter watching Whitaker.  I always forget that Felix is even in this movie.  Overall the script could have used some good streamlining and trimming of characters.  Most people when they are asked about the plot of the movie don’t remember much of it.

On top of it is the fact that some of the humor in the film feels very much targeted toward Moore or Brosnan. Remember Brosnan was hot off of Remington Steele  at this point, and a lot of that show focused on humor. Dalton’s lean mean style is completely at odds with some of the really poor one-liners here. He has some really bad lines during the excellent car chase. We wouldn’t get a script really written for Dalton until Licence to Kill.

John Glen was a veteran of the Bond franchise.  He’d directed the three final Moore films.  The best of these was For Your Eyes Only.  In this film he goes back to that mold.  He directs the action with plenty of excitement.  The scenes in Gibraltar, the car chase in the ice and the final battle aboard the Hercules are excellent.  He also manages to bring tension to key scenes, especially where Bond confronts Pushkin.  Things seem to get a little off track during the battle at the Russian airbase, but for the most part he does a good job with the film.

For entertainment this entry into the James Bond series is above average, but falls a bit short of perfect.  This is mostly because of the faults in the script and the impact they have on the pacing of the movie.  This is one of the longer Bond adventures and it feels like it.  The momentum stalls out when Bond and Kara leave Vienna.  With some script work this could have been the best debut of the original 20 films (Goldeneye has that honor in my book).  As it stands, The Living Daylights is an excellent James Bond film, one that gave us a glimpse of where the series could go with its new star.  It seemed like ‘80s Bond films were going to end on a high note.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Puma Man (1980) - MST3K Review


Professor Tony Farms (Walter George Alton) is your typical dweeby archeologist. But he has just passed the test to become the Puma Man. You see the mysterious Aztec Vadinho (Miguel Angel Fuentes) has just tossed Tony from a window. Tony flails around in front of some rear projection and survives thus revealing his innate abilities to fight evil. 

It’s just in time too, because the evil Kobras (Donald Pleasance) has a diabolical scheme. First he will dress in some of the worst clothing you've seen. Then he'll use an ancient Aztec artifact to possess the minds of the world leaders and thus – control the world! Can Puma Man learn all of his super abilities in time? Is the lovely Jane Dobson (Sydne Rome) helping Puma Man or hindering him? Will the theme song drive you insane? And just how did they pull off those flying effects?

Movie Review:

When Superman hit the screen in 1978, it proved to the world that comic books could yield entertaining films. The real comic book boom didn’t hit until after 1989 with Batman but after ’78, we did get quite a few wannabe super hero movies. This is one of them.

Released in 1980, Puma Man tries it’s hand at creating a fun super hero adventure. Take an interesting premise involving an ancient artifact and a chosen one, add in a power mad villain and the story writes itself, right? Somewhere along the line you’ve gotta determine if you are making a real adventure film, or a spoof. This is one of the really confusing elements of this film. Some cast members look like they are doing everything with a wink and smile. Then there are other folks who are dead serious.  The attempts at humorous scenes don't work at all, but obviously they are supposed to be funny. But other moments seem to be attempting to create some drama. Was the script always this way? I'm betting it was more like the director was looking over the dailies and realized how bad it all looked and decided to try to turn it into a comedy.

Take the flying sequences for example. They stink. No really, they make the 50’s TV version of The Adventures of Superman look like modern day special effects. They are horrid. Was Mr. Alton was told to hunch over and flail around a lot? And whoever is operating the rear projection or blue screen is drunk or high. The result is that Puma man looks like he's flying at odd angles while spiraling his arms around. It's ridiculous looking, and therefore this must be a spoof, right? 

Another bizarre point is that Puma Man doesn’t really have the powers of a puma. Once he puts on his cape and oversized belt he can fly, you know, like a puma. He can warp dimensions and teleport, you know, like a puma. He can use his bare hands and carefully manicured fingers to rend steel. He can simulate death with a blank stare and no heartbeat. Puma man is seeing bouncing around a room (with obvious assistance from trampolines), and other times he can hover, hummingbird-like in front of his prey, just like the pumas we all know and love. But seriously, the only thing remotely cat like about Puma man is that sometimes he can see in the dark. This is shown in the film using a hideous red filter over the action, rendering everything muddled and hard to make out. 

Looking over this list of powers, the movie has to be spoof. But Vadinho reveals each power without a smile, and with such conviction that you almost believe him. These are sacred powers given to Tony by the gods from outer space [snicker snicker]. I can't even write that without laughing.

One of the major problems with Puma Man is that he is a completely useless hero. Alton plays the superhero as a whiney dork who is supposed to be the hero because the script says so. He's not imposing at all. He doesn't come across as smart, or clever. Instead he seems to spend most of the movie lost without a map. He constantly is defeated and has to be saved by Vadinho. The movie even goes so far as to have Puma Man completely neutralized, and the Aztec "sidekick" prepares to go on a suicide mission to take out Kobras and the magic mask once and for all. At that point, we are all hoping that Vadinho becomes our hero.

Then again, maybe this is all part of some elaborate plan to undermine the movie on purpose. Is this a clever deconstruction of the superhero trope, one that is both artistic in its failing and comedic once you stand back far enough and...

No. Look at how Donald Pleasance is dressed and tell me what the hell is going on here?

Ok, the acting... the acting. I've already commented on Alton's wimpy performance. But I have to say he appears to be in on a joke. He never is convincing because he seems to be smiling to himself knowing just to stupid this all is. In the same boat is Rome as Jane Dobson. She looks great in her black leather outfit, and she isn't bad for for the most part. When she isn't playing the femme fatale she smiles a lot and actually has some chemistry with Alton. When the two are on screen you can almost see a fun comedy film at work here. But the two stand out in a bad way when things get serious.

On the other side of the coin is Pleasance who plays the whole thing terribly straight. He glowers, he threatens, he schemes, as only Pleasance can. This is basically the same character we saw in Warrior of the Lost World  or You Only Live Twice. The big difference here is the stupid looking costumes he gets to wear the ridiculous mask he uses time and again to control minds. At least he is trying, even if it forces him to say some really stupid lines and pretend to be menaced by Puma Man.

Fuentes is the real star here. As I mentioned he plays the part of Vadinho with conviction. He seems at once spiritual, brave, completely in awe of the powers of the Puma Man. I've got applaud the actor for being able to look convinced that this scrawny little man hopping around the screen can save the world. On top of that, he looks like he could take on some serious thugs, and does some solid stunt work in the final battle scene (even if the camera angles don't help by showing that not all his punches are connecting). 

Oh and one more little nitpick. The music is hilarious. It’s as if someone took their 1979 Casio keyboard, and plinked out the most simple childish melodies they could come up with. It reminded me of an old 80’s television show called Pinwheel – for the preschool crowd. In addition the music is horribly matched to scenes. Sometimes coming across super happy for no reason or tense when someone is walking down the street and in no danger. Just a mess.

It’s all true, Puma Man or L’uomo Puma in it’s native tongue, is laughably bad. It’s what happens when low budget meets no script all in an attempt to cash in on a more popular film. And Mike and bots are ready for it.

Episode Review:

The crew at Mystery Science Theater 3000 had never tackled a super hero flick before. They had done their share of '60s James Bond rip offs, and even some old '40s and '50s serials with super hero elements (Commando Cody and the Rocket Men). And after watching their work here, I wish that had tackled more straight up super hero movies.

Puma Man offers rich bounty, and they don't waste a drop. They really rip into Tony and his superpowers. Really how could they resist. His hair, his wardrobe, his whining - it's all up for grabs and they are pretty relentless. But the result is hilarious with them finally deciding that they want Vadinho (who they start calling Vadalia, as in the onion) to be the hero.

Some of my favorite riffs are based off the hilarious musical score. All three riffers get a chance to start singing their own lyrics to the simplistic tune. These range from the clip above where Puma Man flies like a moron, to turning it into a jingle for party dip.

Donald Pleasance gets riffed on as well. He loves to say "Pyuuuuma Man", and the bots keep correcting him. Mike keeps confusing him for all kinds of things, like "an old baby" or "an egg". And then there is his outfit and the quote, "I'm and Pleasance and I am funKY!"

This is a top notch riff-fest, and it's a shame that the rights to this film are all tangled up. It doesn't look like it will be available on DVD in the foreseeable future. It ends up being one of the best episodes of the Sci-fi Channel years and easily one of my favorites of Season 9.

The host segments mostly stay aboard the satellite in this episode. Tom Servo deals with Short Man’s disease. Later Mike is inspired by Tony's '70s hair to attempt the “Dry Look”. At the next break the bots decide that Mike is the one and only Coatimuni Man. They get him a ridiculous costume, a happy synthy theme and even an alien god!  Inspired by the mind control device in the movie, the bots attempt to use a paper-mache head to control folk singer Roger Whitaker. Back in Castle Forrester Pearl tries to throw a grand ball, and fails miserably – while Brain Guy and Bobo have fun with a Sliders viewing party (wow that was a '90s flashback). Roger Whitaker shows up to round out the festivities

So you get a top notch episode and entertaining host segments it makes this episode a winner. No need for mind control or Aztec guardians to influence my decision. 

I give it five flailing Puma Men out of Five.

This episode is available on DAP

And now as a special treat, a full version of the theme from Puma Man. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tenchi Muyo – Series 2 (1994)

After the astounding success of the first Original Animated Video (OAV) series, and a well received one off episode (with a bit more skin on display). It was natural for the creators of Tenchi Muyo to dive back into the well and get a second series of animated adventures out there. Did stick to the formula or strike out in a new direction?

Tenchi (Matt Miller) is still trying to deal with all the hot alien girls living in his home. Ryoko (Petrea Burchard) is constantly picking fights with Princess Ayeka (Jennifer Darling). Detective Mihoshi (Ellen Gerstell) is still kind, friendly and clueless. But the biggest changes are coming for the other three girls.

Princess Sasami (Sherry Lynn) may be a cute as a button, but she holds within her the massive power of Tsunami. Just who or what Tsunami is and she wants with Tenchi is another matter all together. Then there’s one of Washu’s (Kate T. Voigt) old university buddies, Dr. Clay (Wess Mann). He’s found Washu and has the perfect plan to get his revenge on her. Poor little Ryo-Oki just isn’t content being a cute Cabbit all the time. She wants to help around the house and make Tenchi smile. A little trip to Washu’s lab may make her wish come true.

Even if our gang manages to survive all these adventures, there is still a small problem. Ayeka and Sasami have been missed. And the royal family of planet Jurai is on the way to find out just what is going on at the Tenchi home. More laughs and space opera adventures are on the way with this second series of Tenchi Muyo.

Good Points:
  • The English voice cast is now fully comfortable with their roles and is obviously having a great time.
  • Visual design remains top notch and inventive
  • Contains some of the funniest scenes in the entire OAV series 

Bad Points:
  • You’ll feel a serious case of rehash with these stories
  • Dr. Clay never feels like a real threat
  • Hope you like Washu, because she becomes the star of the show


There is a whole lot of familiarity going on here. This goes for the plot, the music the types of jokes and the character arcs. When the series tries to throw in a twist, it doesn’t work out so well. But each episode contains some very funny moments, or some cool animated action. It is entertaining in the end, but feels like a missed opportunity to really explore the world they set up in the first series.

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

In Depth Review

Ah, the dreaded sequel conundrum. People want more of the show they liked. Producers are eager to comply. But what do you do? Keep it too familiar and it feels like a tired retread. Change too much and you lose the elements people liked in the first place. Try to walk down the middle and you could end up with a muddled product.

Muddled Is a good way to describe the second series of the Tenchi Muyo OAV series. Much like the second series of El Hazard a few years later, it just doesn’t carry the original story threads forward in any meaningful way. Most of the new stories or super light and fluffy, or just a rehash with a new coat of paint. We do get some back-story for Washu and Sasami, which is nice. But by the end of the series, our little group is pretty much where they started at the beginning of this set of episodes.

Luckily the visuals and sound have remained very good. In audio department, it’s not a big surprise. They are using the Skywalker Sound archives, so you get to hear familiar noises from Indiana Jones and Star Wars in here. But for me, one of the great appeals of the Tenchi Muyo franchise is the interesting design. We get to see more of planet Jurai and their culture. The tree-based technology is very organic and beautiful. Dr. Clay presents us with a new set of technology based on his swooping designs. Because he is a representative of the mysterious Lady Tokimi (Jennifer Darling in a duel role!), there is a lot of rounded and very female design for his devices, including his robot Zero (Petra Burchard in a duel role!).

The other area that seems improved is the voice acting. All our leads are fully into their characters and are having a good time with them. Voigt actually gets to do the most work in this series, since many of the episodes focus on her relationship with Dr. Clay, her motherhood and her amazing scientific abilities. She does a very good job balancing the jovial and silly moments with the drop dead serious moments. Washu is a lot of contradictions, but Voigt makes them all sound very natural in one person.

As I mentioned above, there is some double duty going on in this series. This is partly by design, and partly because it was cheaper than hiring different voice actors. In the case of Lady Tokimi, Darling slows down her speech and lowers her voice an octave or two, adding a bit of mystery to the strange being. Still Darling’s vocal style is distinctive and you recognize her after a couple lines. Luckily Tokimi doesn’t say much in the series. The rest of the doubling has to do with actual variants on current characters. Burchard plays Ryoko and the robot Zero. This works great, because Zero captures Ryoko and then masquerades as her. Burchard does a great job with both roles, keeping them just different enough that we know which is the real Ryoko. Miller gets to play Tenchi as well as his grandfather when he was younger. It’s a solid performance, with Miller able to drop the frantic confusion that Tenchi often has. But my favorite is Sherry Lynn when she voices Tsunami. It takes a while, but you can tell it’s the same voice actress and that is fine, because Tsunami is an aspect of the future Sasami (it all makes sense when you see it). But the cut little squeak is gone and replaced by the voice of a woman. The change is dramatic and effective.

 The musical score keeps in the same area as the previous series. Most of it is performed electronically, but it builds tension and supports the laughs when it needs to. The biggest change are the opening and ending credits. The end credits are typical stuff. But the opening credits features the song “Pioneer” sung with amazing verve and enthusiasm in both English and Japanese. This became the theme song of the series for a lot of folks - partially because it was so darn catchy, but also because the animation was owned by the company Pioneer. The irony wasn’t lost on anyone.

The downside comes with the script and execution of the stories for Tenchi Muyo Series 2. The series opens with one of the most infamous “jump the shark” moments in any television show. To make things more wacky… now Tenchi and the girls have to take care of a baby! Hi-jinks ensue! Actually boredom ensues, because we have all seen these endless clichés before. None of the girls are actually good at taking care of the baby – except for Sasami (who is a child) and Washu (who looks like a child). The humor in this episode falls very flat, with the exception of when Mihoshi tries to take a bath with the baby and you hear her trying to explain to the baby why lunch is not being served, if you catch my drift. We do get some insight on Washu’s previous life and how she had a child somewhere in her past. But this also starts the trend of Washu taking over the plot from the rest of the characters in the series.

Up next is the episode where we find out more about Sasami and her connection to the super powerful woman Tsunami. This episode takes place at the hot springs featured in the previous series, but instead of turning this into one of the more fan service focused episodes, this focuses on the mystery of a ghost at the resort. The whole thing falls flat, with slow pacing, badly placed comedy, and no lead up to the revelation of Sasami/Tsunami. This could have been the perfect place to develop the relationship between the sisters Ayeka and Sasami, but instead Washu acts as Sasami’s mentor. For what is touted as such an important plot point, the episode really feels lackluster.

Episode three fares a little better. It’s a pure comedy episode where Ryo-Oki feels frustrated at not being able to help around the house. In addition she’s also got a bit of a crush on Tenchi (who doesn’t at this point?), so she wishes she could be a full sized girl. A strange alien creature in Washu’s lab picks up on this and attempts to help. It’s a cute and harmless episode in itself, again focusing a lot on Washu and her science as well as her relationship with the girls. The end result is that now Ryo Oki has a “girl type” form she can shift into, rendering her even cuter than before, or kinda creepy if the new form doesn’t appeal to you.

Some conflict finally appears in the next two episodes, with the arrival of Dr. Clay and his desire to be avenged. You see Washu (AGAIN!) made him look like an idiot in the distant past and now he wants to destroy her, or something like that. The thing is, Clay comes up with an over convoluted plan to execute this revenge. Not only that but he is tasked by the goddess-like being Lady Tokimi to find out about Tenchi’s mysterious power. Clay captures Ryoko, and then sends his robot Zero to impersonate her and kill Tenchi, thereby also destroying Washu’s plans.

Since Zero assimilated all of Ryoko’s feelings now she is crushing on Tenchi. But since she doesn’t have all of Ryoko’s baggage, she tries to express her feelings in a completely naive way. This whole dynamic works really well actually, forcing Tenchi to examine his feelings for Ryoko, as well as dealing with the robot zero actually becoming a fully conscious organism.

The final confrontation with Dr. Clay is a rehash of the final battle against Kagato from Series 1. But it lacks the tension, because Dr. Clay is too bumbling and comedic to be taken seriously. He and Washu have some very funny banter, and the resolution of Zero and Ryoko is satisfying, but in the end this conflict just feels limp.

Tenchi Muyo series 2 does end with a funny episode. Since the royal princesses of Jurai have been missing for a while, the King and his consorts arrive to find the girls. Nearly the entire episode is played for laughs, as the king of Jurai attempts to command his steadfast daughters. The girls’ mother comes across like a complete emotional rollercoaster who will hug you one minute and threaten to destroy you the next. Then there’s the whole scene with Tenchi’s grandfather and his mother! It’s basically an info-dump exposition scene meant to build up for the third series (which didn’t arrive for nearly a decade). It slows down the comedic momentum of the episode and goes on way too long with too much cryptic dialogue. The episode climaxes with a dual between Tenchi and one of Ayeka’s suitors from Jurai. It is all very silly, but an entertaining way to end the series. Well almost, after the end credits there’s a strange storyboard like sequence which acts as an epilogue to Dr. Clay’s fate, and gives us some almost nude Ryoko fan service.

I was never a huge fan of Tenchi Muyo series 2. It always felt too much like a rehash and revisiting it, I see how muddled and unfocused it is as well. Instead of exploring the universe they created, the series feels more like it meanders around unsure of what to do with the characters. Seriously, introducing a baby into the mix is a kiss of death. The baby is only in one episode, but it still feels like a half ass attempt at comedy. In a way, I appreciate that they decided to create the Tenchi Universe television series, which is essentially a reboot but brought back Kagato as the main villain and balanced the space opera and comedy with greater skill. While the first series is a milestone in anime history, this series is pretty skippable, especially since I’ve heard that the long delayed series three was pretty awful. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bloody Birthday (1981)

Creepy kids are a staple of the horror genre. There is just something about a supposedly innocent child seeing disturbing ghosts, or committing disturbing acts that makes us feel, well… disturbed. These days you don’t see too many killer kid flicks, the heyday seemed to be the 1980s and the Children of the Corn franchise. But this little film may take the cake. Get it! Cake! Birthday!

Yeah, I’ll shut up now.

It’s a happy time the neighborhood when three kids, Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy), Curtis (Billy Jayne) and Steven (Andy) are all going to celebrate their 10th birthday with a huge party! But a couple things to keep in mind, all three children were born on the same day during an eclipse, and someone is going around the town killing folks. It doesn’t take long for Timmy (K.C. Martel) and his big sister Joyce (Lori Lethin) to figure out that the evil trio is out for murder. Kids will be locked into abandoned refrigerators, cakes will be poisoned, nine year olds will tote guns and Julie Brown will take her top off. All to survive the Bloody Birthday.

Good Points:

  • Does not shy away from the sex or the gore
  • Has some really creative kills
  • Moves at a good pace
Bad Points:

  • Not for those who are disturbed by evil children – these kids are NUTS!
  • Some of kills are funny in execution and denial of the laws of physics
  • Jose Ferrer gets top billing for about 3 minutes of screen time
This movie was a good blast of bloody fun. The child actors were solid at playing soulless murderers. The movie never flagged or got bogged down, the kids were too darn relentless to let that happen. I was surprised by the amount of teenage skin on display, but hell the target audience wants to see boobs, so boobs the movie gives them. Looking for a retro horror flick for the weekend, this one fits the bill, just don’t eat the cake.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 4
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.