Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hercules Unchained (1959) – MST3K Review

Taking pieces of it story from classic Greek myths and classic Greek tragedy, we get Hercules Unchained. It all starts with Hercules (Steve Reeves) returning from his adventures with the Argonauts. He travels with his wife Iole (Sylva Koscina) and a young Ulysses (Gabriel Antonini) to his home city of Thebes. Before he can get there, he gets in a battle with Primo Carnera as the demi-god Antaeus. Herc is able to defeat this clown and continues on his way. He discovers his old pal Oedipus (Cesare Fantoni), was deposed by his own greedy sons. Hercules vows to end the destructive conflict between the squabbling brothers and return Thebes to a peaceful rule.

Herc leaves Iole in the not so trustworthy hands of one of the brothers Eteocles (Sergio Fantoni) and takes a secret message to the other brother Polynices (Mimmo Palmara). Before he can complete the mission, Herc drinks from the waters of forgetfulness (as the voiceover helpfully tells us, but doesn’t bother to mention it to Herc). Our hero falls asleep and is captured by the lovely queen Omphale (Sylvia Lopez) and taken to the land of Lydia. Ulysses uses his quick thinking to pretend to be a deaf mute servant and is taken along as well.

Can Ulysses bring back Hercules memories, before the demi-god becomes completely ensnared in a life of sweet lovin’ with the evil queen? Will Iole be thrown into a pit of tigers? Will Hercules save Thebes? Will the bad-dubbing blow your mind? The answers to these questions and more are revealed in Hercules Unchained.

Movie Review:

Antaeus finds everything hilarious, even his
eventual beat down by the Herc.
A couple years before this movie came out, Steve Reeves stared in Hercules, a film that covered the Jason and the Argonauts story from Herc’s point of view (and with lots and lots of changes to the original myth). American distributor Joseph E. Levine created a marketing campaign for the flick after picking it up fairly cheap. It made a bundle and soon all kinds of Italian muscle men movies were being made and unleashed on the world.

For many folks, Hercules means Steve Reeves. The irony is, he only played the role twice. But the film was so popular (and aired on television so often) that people always associate the role with him. This changed in the 1990s when Kevin Sorbo became associated with the character. I will always hold a spot in my heart for the ultra-cheesy Hercules with Lou Ferrigno.

By I digress (as usual). How does Hercules Unchained measure up? Well it’s a bit of a mess actually. The main problem is the fact that two stories compete for screen time with a subplot or two and you end up with a muddled blob of confusion. The film could have functioned just fine if it focused on Hercules’ role in saving Thebes from the feuding brothers. You also could have had a fun movie with Hercules and Ulysses attempting to escape the isle of the evil queen. But to fuse the two together ends up making everything a jumbled mess. There is no clear narrative here.

Ulysses is sitting right there when Antaeus announces
Now keep in mind, this is a badly dubbed and edited version of Hercules Unchained . And I’m not talking about poor matching to lip flaps (which is in full swing as well). I’m talking about a script that can’t clearly express what the hell is going on. There are plenty of lines that make no sense at all. I’m not sure if this was a sloppy translation, or a too literal translation (which can be just as bad).

An early example is when Hercules runs into the demi-god Anteaus, who demands Iole as his prize. When the thug first appears he says something like “I’m Anteaus and this is my valley. You must pay a toll to pass”. When Herc finally battles the clown, he defeats him pretty easily. He throws the giant to the ground and then turns to leave. But Anteaus just gets back up again. Herc fights him, defeats him, and then Anteaus gets up again. About the third time this happens Ulysses says, “Oh, this must be Anteaus, the legendary man who gets his strength from the earth. Don’t let him touch the ground Hercules!”

Ok, Anteaus announced himself at least once (I’m pretty sure he says his name about three times). Ulysses was standing right there the whole time. The line should have been something like; “I just remembered that Anteaus gets his strength from touching the ground.” Instead, Ulysses comes across like a moron who isn’t paying attention when danger threatens. Of course Iole had just sang a song. So maybe the sound of her voice deafened him and he missed Anteus grand entrance.

This is only a small example of the script issues in Hercules Unchained. It’s much worse with the convoluted brother plot and the evil queen nonsense. If we can look past the bad script, how are the characters treated. Well Hercules comes across as mostly brawn and not much brain. He seems really lazy in this movie, preferring to loaf around and sleep rather than have adventures. Only near the end, when he tries to save Thebes with his special ops team, does he seem like the legendary Hercules we know and love.

Ulysses, teenager of many wiles, helps return
Hercules memories.
I do like how Ulysses is a teenager, but shows all the cunning and craft that his older self will be known for. He deceives the Queen’s men by pretending to be a deaf, mute servant. He figures out how the waters of forgetfulness are being used to keep Herc enslaved. He’s the one that devises the rescue plan. We even get to see him use his legendary bow to save Hercules from a leaping tiger.

The ladies in the film are fairly predictable. Iole is the loving dutiful wife, who pines for her husband while he is away on his mission. Queen Omphale is a complete vamp, who tarts around the palace with her nymphy serving wenches. She uses men until she’s bored, then turns them into statues with the help of some Egyptian priests. She wicked, selfish and sexy – a theme you’ll see in plenty of Italian Muscleman movies that followed this one.

It’s hard to judge the performances here, because the dubbing is so poor. Everything seems a bit over the top and theatrical. The evil brother Etocles is really chewing the scenery here. Omphale is vamping into overdrive. Even Ulysses is playing it pretty broadly. But in a way the whole film is huge, over the top and going for an epic feel on a smaller budget.

A cast of hundreds prepares for the siege of Thebes.
That’s not to say that the visuals aren’t up to snuff. There’s some great location shooting in this film, with the high cliffs of Greece looking really impressive. The entire end sequence with the battle in front of the gates of Thebes uses a cast of hundreds. There are full siege towers rolling up, chariots, archers, infantry and all kinds of chaos. Even the interior sets of Thebes and Omphale’s palace have a large scope to them. You can tell this movie had a good sized budget and that a lot of the money was put on the screen.

Finally there is the old fashioned score by Enzio Masetti. It’s really channeling the classic Hollywood scores of the time, the likes that Miklos Rosza wrote for Ben Hur or Quo Vadis. It’s big, bold and brassy and fits Hercules Unchained like a glove.

The movie’s pacing is what keeps it from being as entertaining as it can be. The movie starts really, really slowly. Herc doesn't meet his first challenge, Antaeus until nearly 15 minutes in. That's an eternity in movie time. The whole sequence with the evil queen also meanders around. It is mostly scenes of Herc lounging around making kissy faces with Omphale. Ulysses schemes are fun to watch, but the whole thing just slogs along. Once the escape attempt starts, things pick up, and the finale battle in front of Thebes is a hoot. I had never seen Reeves in the role before, but he makes a very good Herc, and seems to be having some fun in the part. But the whole film is just messy enough to make it a good fit for Joel and Bots to riff on.

Episode Review:  
"Come to your sugar momma, Herc."
This was the first of the sword and sandal flicks that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would riff on. It wouldn’t be the last. From this moment forward, the sword and sandal flick would be a regular target for the show during the Comedy Central years. More Hercules, Maciste and Colossus films would come down the pipe and provide plenty of laughs for all of us.

I was always a bit puzzled as to why Hercules Unchained was the first one they tackled, instead of Steve Reeves first pass at the role in Hercules. It is obvious from the opening of the film that we are coming in at the end of some kind of grand adventure. There are some brief intros, but nothing else to really develop the characters. We’re just expected to know how these people are and how they all know each other.

Maybe the crew at Best Brains figured this would just add to the confusion that Joel and Bots feel as they watch. Most of the comments deal with how none of the boys can figure out who the characters are and what the hell is going on. This causes the riffing to get a bit stale in places, as all they are really saying is some variant of “Wow, is this movie confusing.”

This is Herc's beautiful wife. This is Herc's beautiful
city. How did he get here?
Some of the best jokes come around when Herc is first affected by the waters of forgetfulness. Tom comments that the spring and it’s surrounding rocks “Look like a Star Trek set.” After Herc takes a big gulp and starts wandering around with a vacant look on his face Crow says in his best Steve Reeves voice, “I’ve forgotten everything but I still can’t get ‘Afternoon Delight’ out of my head.” Later as Herc is still looking a bit dull and staring at the Queen Joel does his best Talking Heads imitation with “This is not my beautiful wife. I ask my self, how did I get here?”

Later in the film when Herc tries to save Iole and gets trapped in a pit full of tigers the boys threaten to call Betty White because of all the injured horses and tigers they keep seeing. As one tiger jumps on Hercules’ back Joel says, “Hobbes get off me!” He eventually joins the battle raging in front of the gates of Thebes a bunch of warriors are wearing white caps that flop forward. Tom declares it a battle of “Smurfs vs. Skins”. When Hercules is riding around in a chariot and using grappling hooks and rope to pull down siege towers, Crow comments, "Hey it's just like The Empire Strikes Back!" Tom adds, "But it's not very good."

Joel and the bots attempt to live it up, ancient Greek
style. But Gypsy's "song" causes much pain.
The host segments are a bit of a mixed bag. The episode starts with Joel attempting to subject the bots to “wash and wax day”. It ends in robot tears. For the invention exchange the mad scientists create designer colors for roaches.Joel creates the Steve-o-meter. It allows the user to determine if Steve Allen already thought of their idea. Turns out that Steve Allen already thought up the Steve-o-meter.  Before the mad scientists send the movie, it turns out Steve Reeves is helping them out around the lab. Of course its Mike dressed up as the muscled actor. At the first break Crow and Tom enjoy some ancient Greek living as Joel peels grapes and Gypsy attempts to sing while strumming the lyre with her head. It’s not impressive or relaxing. For the next break everyone comes up with his or her own food with a magic property, inspired by the water of forgetfulness. Later on, Crow and Tom interrogate Joel about what Herc and “the nice lady” are doing all day, especially after they start kissing and the screen goes dark. Joel won’t tell them a thing. Finally, after the movie ends, they try to figure out why there was a huge increase in these types of movies in the 50s and 60s. All kinds of ideas are mentioned, including Joseph Campbell. Tom ruins the whole thing by giving a dull pragmatic answer – they were cheap to make, sell and distribute and always made a profit.

In many ways the highlights balance out some dead spots, and the constant riffs on how confused they are. The pacing here is a little off, almost as if the writing crew wasn’t sure how to best tackle the film. I chalk this up to the fact that Hercules Unchained was the first sword and sandal flick. The next one they tried Hercules Against the Moonmen is a classic episode. Here, the riffing ends up being just average.

The evil queen and her nymphettes vamp it up!

I give it three badly dubbed Italians out of five.

This episode is available on The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 7.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Nostalgia Nugget: The Akira Legacy

An animated film that made a huge impact
Katsuhiro Otomo’s film Akira cast a long shadow over Japanese animation and anime fandom in North America. Some of this I experienced first hand, and other elements I discovered with the help of recent viewing and some discussion with a fellow fan.

As I mentioned in my review, for many in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Akira was the film that converted them into fans. Yes, even with its poor dub and muddy visual transfer, plenty of people were blown away by the sheer scope, audacity and power of the film. Seeing that movie and then comparing it to other “adult” animation made in North America was like comparing apples and oranges. While this seems like a slam on the folks who worked on Ralph Bakshi’s movies, films like Heavy Metal or even Transformers the Movie, it really isn’t. Akira remains fairly unique in it’s approach and execution. Lots of anime that came after tried to imitate its success and usually failed.

For most non-Japanese viewers Akira opened the door to what they thought was possible in animation. They wanted to see more. Non-Japanese distribution companies picked up on this and attempted to meet the need. Fans liked Akira’s brutal edge, and so ultra-violent, and often nearly pornographic movies and original animated video (OAV) series were picked up and released. This all fed into the perception that all Japanese animation was nothing but naked women being raped by tentacles while exploding into gory pieces.

One of the most infamous
anime series of the 1990s.
I don’t want to blame the North American distributors too much, because they did bring over other shows and series too. But the most popular stuff during those years was the really disturbing properties like La Blue Girl, Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, Wicked City and Angel Cop. Keep in mind, the animation companies were making this stuff too, so equal blame to everyone. But the perception of anime being material to fuel twisted sick fantasies really stuck for a long time. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that things started to get away from that. More shows like Tenchi Muyo, Ranma ½ and Oh My Goddess showed the cuter more humorous side of the medium.

Sad to say, but Akira was probably the start of that nasty perception about anime.

On the flip side Akira did show Japanese animators that there were new stories to tell and new ways to tell them. I doubt that Ghost in the Shell would have been created if Akira hadn’t been so popular around the world. It showed that cyberpunk animation could be executed on a large scale. Several OAV series and movies delved deeper into that realm.

Perhaps the most interesting influence is thematic. The concept of putting a teenager into the role of immense power and responsibility, and watching them attempt to reconcile the fact was fairly fresh. Most anime up to that point had never had a teenager that was so angry and confused in a role of power. Most of the time, it was the responsible teen (or child) that was given power. It was the thrill of seeing a young person do a good job with the responsibility that was appealing to viewers.

But Akira was more realistic. Tetsuo is a bitter young man, and he lashes out with his new powers. He’s selfish, but not really hateful. His anger combined with the lack of control is what really endangers everyone. Tetsuo feels like a real kid stuck in a situation that would impossible to really grasp.

Shinji struggles with his fear and his fate.
This theme and approach would come up again and again in the angsty 1990s anime world. The most famous would be the character of Shinji in the series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Much like Tetsuo, Shinji is a bitter teen who feels abandoned and misunderstood. Unlike Tetsuo, Shinji does not try to face his problems, he runs away from them (usually by withdrawing completely from everything). Where Tetsuo indulged in his rage, Shinji hides from it. Shinji is told time and again that he has the power and the responsibility to save the world. He can not handle it. Fear is the driving force in Neon Genesis Evangelion just like anger is the driving force in Akira. But both series put a teen in an impossible situation and we watch them attempt to handle it.

Neon Genesis Evangelion became a huge hit and spawned many imitators. For a long time every lead character in an anime series was an angsty misunderstood teen. Hell, this even crossed over into video games like Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Often I see people complaining about Evangelion’s negative impact on anime story telling. But I think the real root is Akira. Honestly I can’t condemn it. I think Evangelion is a great show.

The other element that Akira made popular in anime was the imagistic, philosophical explosion in the final reel. Obviously it was inspired by the visual dynamics during the final reel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately this is a double edge sword. When used properly, this type of ending can leave the viewer with intriguing questions about the film and it’s message. Used poorly, it can be an attempt to cover up the fact that no one really thought out how to end the movie or series.

Whoa, more philosophy?
Again Evangelion is often called out for having a horrible ending (especially the television series). I never agreed with that. I thought the ending, while a bit disconcerting and abrupt, made sense in the context of the show. The surreal images were not out of left field as so many folks claim.

Many series attempted to end with a massive explosion of bizarre visuals and characters talking about the meaning of life. Even The Matrix films were guilty of using this trope. It all goes back to Akira.

So, Otomo’s film did inspire its share of good and not so good. These days, anime is less influenced by Akira, but most anime fans still hold the film in high regard. It’s just interesting to look at the immediate aftermath of it being unleashed on viewers in Japan and in the rest of the world.

Interested in another anime legacy? Check out my thoughts on Tenchi Muyo and it's impact on Japanese animation and anime fandom.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Akira (1988)

The first time I heard about Akira it was in a hushed tone. I was talking to a fellow employee at the video store. I told him how I’d seen some pretty edgy animation, like Bakshi’s Wizards and the infamous Heavy Metal. He smiled and said I hadn’t seen anything yet. He told me of a movie that had amazing detail in the animation, and contained scenes of people exploding and motorcycle chases in a futuristic city. If Heavy Metal was the edge, then Akira drove right over it. It took a few years, and I finally found Akira. And he was right.

World War III left Tokyo decimated, but humans have rebuilt a Neo-Tokyo, and now in the year 2019 things are reaching a boiling point. Students are demonstrating against a corrupt government, the military is performing experiments dealing with psychic powers and biker gangs roam the streets. The city is rotting from within and all that is needed is a gentle push to bring about another Armageddon.

With a set up like that, you know we are in for some kind of apocalypse. A biker gang lead by Kaneda (Johnny Yong Bosch) is mixing it up in the streets like normal. The runt of the gang, Tetsuo (Joshua Seth) is severely hurt in a bizarre crash. Before his friends can rescue him, Tetsuo is spirited away by black military helicopters and sent to a secret lab to become the latest guinea pig for the psychic experiments. Meanwhile Kaneda meets the spirited Kei (Wendee Lee) a member of the resistance movement in Neo-Tokyo The two find themselves pulled into a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of the nation’s government. And when Kaneda finds Tetsuo again, the young man is not who he was before. He now wields tremendous psychic powers and is very, very angry. Behind it all is the mysterious Akira and his link to a mass of destruction. Will he bring about the end of everything or a new beginning?

Good Points:
  • The animation is simply astounding in scale and scope
  • A visceral film that bombards its viewers
  • Influenced many anime and films that came after it

Bad Points:
  • Contains seriously disturbing scenes of graphic violence and body mutation
  • The ending can be confusing
  • The older dub makes things even more confusing

Simply put Akira is a landmark of animation. The detail, scope and scale of the visuals are something to behold, and have rarely been met or bested during the years of hand drawn animation. The movie is about anger and change: both are violent. This violence and aggressiveness will drive some viewers away. But a new dub script has improved the overall film, and makes it well worth seeking out to experience at least once.

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

In Depth Review
Tetsuo has had enough of Kaneda's interference.
Any anime fan worth his or her salt has seen Akira. You’ll even find plenty of non-fans who have at least heard of the film. Imagery and references pop up in geek culture all the time. And for many fans of animation it is a reference quality work that demands respect, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

That is the common complaint I see leveled at the film. Most of this comes from an inferior dub that was made in 1990. For many folks, this was the first introduction to the film (and to anime in general). The result was a lot of confusion and the idea that all anime was ultra-violent sci-fi that made no sense at all. I’ll admit, that early dub did require a few viewings before everything clicked into place, but the films core message was still there.

A new dub in 2001 pretty much changed the whole thing, turning a confusing mess into a story with an interesting mix of horror, humor, paranoia and seething anger. The cleaned up image on the DVD from Pioneer was also a revelation, showing a color palate that was much more vivid and showing the amazing detail of the backgrounds in this film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What is Akira about? It tells the story of a catastrophic change for two individuals: Neo-Tokyo and Tetsuo. Throughout the film, the city and the teenager appear to be self-destructing. Many times Tetsuo is actively destroying the city, at the same time the military, government and society around Tetsuo is actively trying to control or destroy him. By the end of the film the city and the boy have been ravaged by the battle. The only clear way to escape the torment is to cease to exist in this world.

Kaneda takes aim at his one time friend.
That is where the film ends up losing viewers. Akira makes his appearance, but it is a part that is so small and ethereal that you wonder why the film was even named after him. But in many different ways, Akira is a catalyst. His name alone is enough to inspire dread and worship. His role is explained, but only in a round about way. It ends up taking a couple viewings to really understand who Akira is, and why his action (and inaction) is important to Neo Tokyo and Tetsuo. And as you know, I love a film that makes you think a little after it ends.

The film is based on a graphic novel series by Katsuhiro Otomo. He started the series in 1982 and ended it in 1990. He also directed this film adaptation. So what you see in the film is a distilled modified version of his concepts from the manga. This does account for some of the elements that seem a bit rushed. But, like Ghost in the Shell, the adaptation manages to capture all the key plot and theme points in an abbreviated form.

Akira is really a visual masterpiece of the animated medium. There are sequences where so much is going on that it is hard to take it all in. While the detailed backgrounds aren’t quite as realistic as the ones for Ghost in the Shell, they fit the world created for Neo-Tokyo. The city itself feels enormous, overwhelming and rotting. Everything seems to be in some state of decay or upheaval. Garish neon lights and loud colors clash with the dank sewers and crumbling architecture. In many ways it fits the 1980s view of the post apocalyptic world.

Science marvels at it's advances as the military looks on.
What is even more impressive about this movie is the animated action and motion. Otomo keeps everything dynamic and explosive. He uses plenty of camera motion combined with action scenes that never skimp on capturing anything. The first rumble between Kaneda’s gang and their rivals the Clowns is impressive. The motorcycles move realistically, and when the brutality kicks in the blows to the head with pipes and the bodies hitting the pavement feel real.

The impact of the animation only escalates as the scope of the destruction grows. From simple violence between rival gangs it climaxes in the destruction of an entire city full of people. Very little is left untouched. There are psychokinetic battles that rip flesh apart, there’s heavy artillery used against a single fleeing man, there’s even an space based energy weapon that fires upon one of our protagonists with disturbing results. Akira is about violence and it never shies from this. It is one of the reasons the film is infamous and appreciated at the same time.

Tetsuo takes charge of his exploding city.
Another visual element that really comes through, especially on the remastered version of the film is the use of the color red. The cleaned up print reveals how vivid the colors are in the film. The reds now take on an almost electric quality. The obvious connection here is to violence and blood. The film has many scenes with blood, and the gore in the film is one of the things that made it popular with anime fans in the late 80s and early 90s. But red can also be linked to anger and aggression. Kaneda dresses in a red leather jacket and drives a brilliant red motorcycle. He’s aggressive, hot headed and rash. Tetsuo is seen in pale blues and greens in the early parts of the film. But once he goes on his rampage, he rips a red curtain down and fashions it into a cape. He is angry and more than willing to express that anger. Finally the reds, oranges and yellows in the film can be seen as links to fire and eruptions. The city itself seems to be awash in blood or fire on several occasions. The combination of yellow buildings, orange lighting and characters dressed in red continues to reinforce this image. It’s as if Neo-Tokyo is already burning and we are just watching it. In fact one of the taglines used for the film was “Neo-Tokyo is about to explode”.

Kaneda and Rei or is that Rei and Kaneda?
With all the technical animated brilliance on display there is one drawback to Akira. Otomo has a very distinct, simplistic character design. He keeps things very abbreviated when it comes to facial features. He also keeps the hair in the film to realistic tones for Japanese characters. The end result is that you have quite a few characters that end up looking the same. The supporting cast can get especially confusing. Two remembers of the resistance look like twins, except one wears a hat. For the longest time, I thought they were the same guy. There are even moments where Kei is wearing a jacket and hat, and ends up looking a lot like Kaneda. You end up waiting to hear people speak to figure out who is who in some scenes. This visual issue combined with the poor 1990 dub may have been responsible for a lot of the confusion the movie inspires.

The sound is also pretty impressive. The film provides plenty of instances of unique sound effects, crowd noise and massive destruction. Luckily the balance is handled well and never overwhelms the dialogue or the music.

Kaneda witnesses the ravages of Neo Tokyo.
I blogged a bit about the musical score by Geinoh Yamashirogumi. It is truly a unique mix that fits the film and actually gives Akira it’s own identity. The score’s most impressive moments are during the opening and end credits, where you only have images and music creating a mood. The extensive use of various percussion, from huge drums to tiny chimes, creates a rhythm to the film. It is constantly moving forward toward a climax. Add to this the use of a choir chanting with or counter to the rhythm and it adds a while new layer. Truly nothing else quite sounds like this score, and when you hear a track from the score you are immediately reminded of the film. There are cases where the score distracts a little from the film due to its unique nature.

I’ve mentioned a couple times that that 1990 dub is pretty inferior. For some anime fans, the multiple mispronunciations of the Japanese names will be enough to detour you. Most of the time the emphasis is put on the wrong syllable, and was obviously directed by someone who hadn’t listened to the Japanese pronunciation. Beyond that, the character of Kaneda is off, coming across very heroic in the 1990 dub. The dialogue at the end of the film is an example of a dub script at it’s most muddled. The visuals become abstract, and the dialogue philosophical. The 1990 dub just doesn’t know what to make of it all, and as the movie ends you’re left wondering what the hell just happened.

Three experiments who wear the pain on their faces.
2001 gave Akira a much better dub. The voice actors had all worked on anime before and were well versed in Japanese pronunciations. The character of Kaneda is much less heroic and more like the juvenile delinquent with the heart of gold. He’s also not the sharpest tool in the shed, more street-smart than anything else. This comes through a lot clearer in the new dub. Finally the dialogue in the ending (while still philosophical and obtuse) makes more sense and links closer with the imagery on the screen. While part of me nostalgically enjoys the older dub, Pioneer’s new dub is easily the superior version.

Much like Ghost in the Shell the basic story of Akira is fairly straightforward. It’s got a lot of the tensions of 1980s cold war angst in it. It’s often considered an example of cyberpunk. It slams the power hungry political elite, represented by a group of bitter old men. It warns of scientific exploration without a thought for consequences. And while the character of the Colonel seems to be an antagonist, in many ways he’s the only realist in the film. He takes responsibility for his actions and tries his best to save the city, even if it flies in the face of science and social authority.

Finally the film touches on human potential to change. Some of this seems to be benevolent, like the three children who appear wizened and yet live in a playroom. Other times this change is violent and angry, exemplified by Tetsuo and his rages. But as angry and dangerous as Tetsuo becomes, he is not painted as the villain. He shares the role of protagonist with Kaneda (and you can even look at Kaneda as an antagonist if you want). Tetsuo has his powers thrust upon him. Yes he abuses them. But he pays for it, physically, mentally and socially. He is literally presented with little choice but to remove himself from existence in our world. It is never phrased as death, and the images recall the star gate sequence form 2001: A Space Odyssey. The final transformation of Tetsuo remains a mystery that no one can grasp (literally and figuratively).

Tetsuo loses control of his powers and of his own flesh.
All of this is rolled into one two-hour movie and in all honestly is handed very well. Otomo keeps things moving forward, uses the plot and images to bombard the viewer. In many ways Akira is not a pleasant movie to watch. It’s aggressive, violent and in your face. It’s one of the reasons I don’t find myself reaching for it too often. It is the opposite of Ghost in the Shell and it’s cool aesthetic. While the two films have a lot of common ground, they are very different viewing experiences.

It’s that aggressive nature of the film that keeps me from putting it in the top tier of my favorite Japanese animation. I appreciate it. Each time I watch it, I get a little more out of it. But each viewing is like being hit in the face with angry ball of punk anger. I prefer to have my angst a little more tempered. Still, I can’t deny that Akira packs a punch. Nearly anyone who’s seen it will not forget it or some of the imagery in the film. It has earned its place as a classic example of animated story telling.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Kaneda - Akira

Like just about everything else with the film Akira, the soundtrack by Geinoh Yamashirogumi is unique. Using primarily percussion, human voices and a dash of 80s electronics the score sound like nothing else you'd hear in anime (or in any other film I've run across). Melded into this are traditional Japanese musical stylings, and chants that I believe are Buddhist and Shinto in nature. Director Katsuhiro Otomo utilized the music very well in the film, taking Yamashirogumi's long tracks and using pieces of them throughout the film. Here is the opening track (and used in other portions of the film) called "Kaneda" after the lead character. Listen close and you'll hear the vocals actually chanting his name, and the name of the other protagonist, Tetsuo.

This version is a slight remix, but still very close to the original.

Friday, April 12, 2013

American Beauty (1999)

This movie really divided folks back when it was released in 1999. I remember recommending it to renters in the video store. Some of them coming back loving it and others hating it. At the time, I figured the movie hit a little too close to home, and some viewers were just angry with it. But some time has passed, and maybe I just need to look closer…

Lester Bernham (Kevin Spacey) says the following in the beginning of the film, “My wife and daughter think I’m a loser. And they’re right, I have lost something”. It doesn’t take too long for Lester to be shocked into action. His daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) becomes a vision of Aphrodite for him, and he starts to fanaticize about the teenager. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) can’t seem to catch a break in her real estate business and becomes more frayed by the day. Jane Bernham (Thora Birch) thinks both of her parents are “lameos”. Luckily she meets the boy next store.

The new neighbors are the Fitts. Ricky (Wes Bentley) is a young loner who spends his time selling weed and filming beauty on his camcorder. His father Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is as straight-laced and hard assed as they come. His wife Barbara (Allison Janney) is suffering from some kind of mental fugue, as she wanders the house in a daze.

Both families will warp and change over the next few days, as they come to realize that there is beauty in the world. Sometimes it is on the surface hiding something dark underneath. Other times American Beauty is right in front of you, you’ll only see it if you look closer.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing visuals that tell the story and themes at various levels
  • Excellent cast and acting
  • An innovative score by Thomas Newman

Bad Points:
  • Can be seen as pretentious and artsy
  • Doesn’t tell a new story or reveal a “hidden truth”
  • The slower pace will bore some viewers

I can still see why this will divide some viewers. The message about mid-life crises and futility of suburban life is enough to make some people sick. I still think some folks will see too much of themselves in these characters and take offense. While my enthusiasm for the film has cooled a bit, I still think that the visual style on display and the top-notch acting by a pitch perfect cast makes this well worth seeking out, or revisiting.

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

In Depth Review
Quoth Lester, "I RULE!"
Like so many critically lauded films, American Beauty has become a bit of a punching bag these days. Once it was considered the best film of 1999 and the pinnacle of art cinema of the 1990s. Now I see the film described as a pretentious overrated movie that aspires to tell us this daring truth, but really is telling us that we are all a bunch of delusional morons who need to smoke a few joints, get laid and realize how pointless our middle class lives are. Yeah, I’m not exaggerating the rage here.

But the thing is, these angry folks need to take the films advice, and look closer at American Beauty and realize that there is some amazing cinematic skill on display. Even if you don’t like or agree with the message, doesn’t mean you can dismiss the whole film out of hand.

Director Sam Mendes has been very selective with the films he directs. American Beauty was his first film, and he followed it up with The Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Away we Go and the James Bond flick Skyfall. One common thread in each of these films is the amazing visuals on display. Everything from the lighting, the framing and the camera movement is designed to accentuate the story, enforce the themes and create a mood. You can take any scene in this film and it will tell you several things at once. You don’t see this type of visual attention too often, and it’s always a pleasure when you do.

What she sees is not who we see.
The tagline for the film “Look Closer…” is a running idea for the entire movie. Characters are constantly watching something. We see many close ups of eyes, and have whole scenes where we see Ricky holding his camera, capturing something. At the same time we are watching him, we can see what he is watching on the screen behind him. Lester has several fantasy sequences of Angela. Nearly all of these begin with him staring at her, before he moves for a more physical interaction. Carolyn’s job involves her showing houses to others, and performing for them. Angela is concerned about her physical beauty: her looks. Jane is the same way, feeling she is ordinary compared to her more “beautiful” friend. Characters see what they want to see, but often miss what is really happening. This occurs constantly with Col. Frank. What he sees Ricky doing and what is really happening are quite different.

The infamous scene in American Beauty where Ricky and Jane watch a movie of a bag blowing in the wind delivers the main theme of the film. Ricky calls it the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. He speaks about how beauty is all around us and when you realize it, the feeling overwhelms you. Bentley delivers the lines with such conviction that you believe him. At the same time, many viewers find this whole scene to be so pretentious and ridiculous that they want to throw something at the screen and wring Ricky’s neck.

True beauty, or true pretension?
For some viewers Ricky is just what he appears, a guy who has some emotional issues because his parents are really screwed up. He’s a loser who is selling drugs to school kids, and picking up a girl who is also screwed up. He babbles about beauty, but all he has to show for it is a plastic bag in the wind. It’s a frickin PLASTIC BAG! He calls Mena Suvari ugly, and she’s obviously anything but. In short, the guy is probably going to end up on a short road to nowhere, and the movie is putting him forth as a hero. No thanks.

I kind of get it. But at the same time I see where Ricky is coming from. His dialogue in that scene made sense to me, and I could connect with him. Seeing things in another way can be alienating. It’s difficult because everyone is telling you, you’re wrong. It’s takes courage to say, “What if we looked at it this way?” So many people only see things the way they want to. American Beauty shares this idea with David Lynch’s Lost Highway a couple years before. Lost Highway is about a man who remembers things his way, “Not necessarily the way they happened”. I think a lot of people are like that, and don’t want to see things another way. It’s difficult to handle life as you see it, to imagine life from someone else’s view is too much.

Red on white - colors that repeat during the film
This film is about perspective. Lester’s perspective on his life changes when he sees Angela. Yeah, it’s a full-blown mid life crisis. And yet, in Lester we see a sense of freedom. He’s awake, he’s looking, and he’s seeing the world around him with fresh eyes. Yeah, he’s lusting over a teenaged girl, and he’s trying to recapture a youth that is in the rearview mirror. But the freedom, a very “American” ideal, is the driving force. By the end of the film Lester is at peace with himself. He wants to be happy. He wants his wife and daughter to be happy. He wants to live in this freedom. And the end of the film implies that he keeps that freedom, even after the events in the finale.

Beyond the visuals, the acting is the other key component here. Spacey as Lester and Bening as Carolyn are perfect. Spacey is great at acerbic and disillusioned, and he makes the transformation of Lester a very real one. Bening also balances an intensity and desperation that is believable and pitiful. I always start the film disliking her, but in the end I feel sorry for her, and hope that she’s able to hold onto that moment of freedom that she obtains.

Jane and Ricky watch death drive by
The teenagers also do an excellent job. Birch captures the awkward confused and bitter teenager really well. She was 17 at the time the film was made, so in many ways she was probably playing herself. But it’s an effective performance. Wes Bentley captures the essence of Ricky. I think he projects that confidence and calm of someone who is perfectly comfortable with who he is. The more we see of his life the more we understand him. It’s a good understated performance. Mena Suvari became the poster girl for the film, literally. She was the American Beauty and Mendes makes sure to film her that way. But as the film continues, she shows more than just the shallow self-obsessed girl. The key is she’s just a girl, one that is just as confused as everyone else in this movie.

Last but not least is Chris Cooper as Col. Frank Fitts. It seems like a very superficial character. But we see a lot of levels going on here. The final scenes with him confronting Lester are handled so well. The look in Cooper’s eyes is perfect and does so much for that scene. Re-watching the movie, knowing what is coming, you can see how much Cooper put into the performance. This man has some serious issues, and they are all layered within.

The music by Thomas Newman is a curious beast. I blogged a bit about it here.  It fits the movie like a glove, being both bright and atmospheric when it needs to be. Newman uses some unique instrumentation that on the surface shouldn’t work. But it all does. Combined with some perfect song selections, the musical soundscape of the film works wonders.

What Col. Fitts sees is not what we know.
I’ve mentioned David Lynch once, but there is another of his films that American Beauty is reminiscent of – Blue Velvet. Ok, no one finds an ear in a field and there’s no sign of Dennis Hopper. But the idea of suburbia hiding a dark center was expressed with some visual daring in Lynch’s film. Its opening sequence could be seen as a perfect metaphor for American Beauty, with it’s perfect roses hiding the writhing black insects underneath. Blue Velvet came out in 1986 and was hardly the first film to tackle suburban dystopia. So it’s no wonder that some people feel that American Beauty is old hat.

No the message is not new. Even the images aren’t new. But what is new is the concept of watching and looking. 1999 saw the advent of another film that focused on watching and seeing. The truth was sought and the perspective was from a hand held camera. The Blair Witch Project used its footage to show the truth of what happened to those who sought the truth. American Beauty does something very similar. Ricky’s camera captures the true beauty, even if it may not be immediately apparent.  It’s interesting to see how the use of the handheld camera as an image of perspective would really become popular in the 2000s, after both these films got the concept rolling.

I don’t like the word pretentious. It is thrown around without much thought. I always get the feeling that if someone doesn’t’ like the message of something they use that word to put down the creator. Pretention implies that the creator is out to make a grand statement that he or she feels you need to know for your own good. The only way to do this is to talk down to you. But like everything else, pretention is in the eye of the beholder.

Lester gazed upon an American Beauty
Is American Beauty pretentious? You could make a fair argument for it. There are times where it feels that the visual cues and repeated imagery are utilized to hammer in the message of “Your life is a lie. Realize this and be free”. If you take these characters as stereotypes meant to represent all suburban dwellers, than I can see how this can come across as Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball trying to smack some sense into viewers.

But that assumes that they aren’t just telling a story about two families during a time of change. For me the message is: you can’t be happy until you are at peace with yourself and your life. Ricky is the only character who is happy with his life (for the most part). Each character gets a taste of that peace (except for Col Fitts and his wife). It takes a moment of contemplation, to see yourself from another point of view and understand that maybe, just maybe, what is the social norm is not the key to happiness for everyone.

This scene offers many perspectives
Is the film selling selfishness as the route to happiness? I don’t think so. Lester cares about his family. You can see it in his eyes, in his reactions to the things they do. He wants Jane to be happy. He wants Carolyn to be happy. But he’s still coming to grips with his change. Given a bit more time, I think the whole thing could have worked out. People can coexist, but they have to be honest with themselves. They have to know what they want and what they are. They have to be willing to tell others. And of they find someone who understands and wants the same things – well then we can all be happy. Is wanting a happy, peaceful life selfish?

I used to love this movie. This was back when I really loved art films and thought I knew more than any one else. I’m older now, and realize I don’t know much at all, and I know there’s a place for art films and place for popcorn flicks. American Beauty is a very good film, but misses greatness for me. Its got a bit of a dark sense of humor to it, and that makes it entertaining. But it does feel a bit heavy on the delivery of the message over the telling of the story. It makes the film feel heavy-handed at times, and the methodical pacing isn’t completely warranted in all aspects. For a first time film director, it’s an impressive feat. It also showed us Mendes two great strengths were apparent from the beginning – strong visuals and the ability to get great performances out of his actors.

The red door hides many secrets. Look closer...
What is interesting to me, from a historical perspective, is that American Beauty was a last hurrah for the popularity for the arty dramatic film. The 1990s were a heyday for the major studios to try telling stories that were unique, independent and artistic. It was the decade where Shakespeare was popular in theatrical release. It was the decade that gave us the surprise of Pulp Fiction, the horror of Seven and the joyful sadness of Boogie Nights. In many ways American Beauty was the culmination of that. The 2000s swung the pendulum back over to big budget crowd pleasers that focused less on characters and themes, and more on stars and special effects. Major studios bought up the independent studios, saturated the market with quirky, and burned viewers out. Then they closed down those wings, unless they wanted some Oscar bait. So for me American Beauty holds a bit of sadness. It was the beginning of the end for this type of film. Of course the pendulum will swing again.

 So where does this leave us? American Beauty is a well made movie with a message. It wasn’t a game changer, or a milestone of cinema. But it also isn’t a pretentious blowhard of a film that hates its viewers. It’s a movie about perspective, and it requires that you look a little closer.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Score Sample – American Beauty – Thomas Newman

This is one of those movie scores that made an impact. Not only did Thomas Newman’s music fit the film perfectly, but it also ended up becoming the style for quirky comedy/dramas for the next decade or so. As such, the style has worn a bit thin for film score fans. But hearing it in context makes it seem fresh again. The music tends toward atmospheric, not really having a theme, but creating the perfect mood. It’s very delicate at times and can even be relaxing. Here’s the opening track Dead Already, offering a bit of everything Newman include in the score.