Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sidehackers (1969) – MST3K Review

Rommel (Ross Hagen) is one of the best sidehackers in the sport. And what is sidehacking? Well it’s hanging onto a sidecar frame on a motorcycle, while the motorcycle is racing on a dirt track. Rommel fixes bikes when he isn’t hanging off them and that is how he meets J.C. (Michael Pataki) a biker who performs at rodeos and carnivals. The two hit it off, especially when Paisley (Clair Polan) takes a liking to Rommel, even though she is J.C.’s girl.

But nothing doing, Rommel is in love with Rita (Diane McBain) and they spend hours wandering in fields and snuggling under trees. All this love ends up making Paisly mad, so she tells J.C. that Rommel attacked and abused her. J.C., not the most stable guy in the first place, goes off the deep end and savagely attacks and kills Rita. Rommel is shattered, but vows revenge – and that means gathering a group of anti-heroes and taking the fight to J.C. By this point in the film you’ll be wondering where all the Sidehackers went to.

Movie Review:
It's impossible to scrape of sidehacker with kung-fu
This movie is also known as Five the Hard Way, which I think has something to do with the finale of the film where Rommel and his four pals attack J.C.’s hideout. It goes along with a character named Crapout played with hillbilly verve by Hoke Howell. Using this title may keep all the fans of sidehacking from rushing the theaters in hope of seeing a film that finally treats the sport with respect. Unfortunately Sidehackers is not that film. It’s not a sports drama about an underdog sidehacker rising above the odds to win the day. No, instead the sidehacking is just some color to what is essentially a revenge story.

Well, kinda, the movie is pretty unfocused. It starts off appearing to be a film about sidehackers, and then detours into a melodrama about two lovers named Rita and Rommel. But J.C. appears and seems to have wandered in from another movie, possibly a friend of Banjo’s from Wild Rebels. Once J.C. really takes over, the movie ends up going down the exploitation counter-culture cinema that brought about films like The Girl with Gold Boots and The Hellcats.

There is probably a decent movie in here somewhere, but the mixing of all these storylines lessens the whole film and makes it flail around like motorcycle that lost it’s sidehacker.

Sessions presents, Rommel Live at the Acropolis!
Visually the film has a grainy low budget look, which actually helps some scenes work a little better. The footage of the sidehacking race is actually pretty good and edited in an exciting way. I can see why they may have hoped that changing the name to Sidehackers would bring some focus to these scenes. But other times the editing and cinematography just don’t cut the mustard. I can’t say much about the editing, because of a certain issue I’ll mention later in the review. But I can say that frequent flashbacks to material we had just seen a few minutes ago are pretty annoying. You also get the super-imposed images when Rommel is thinking about the good times he had with Rita. It reminds me of AM Gold compilation commercials you’d see on TV back in the 80s.

The sound in the movie is atrocious. Obviously they only had one boom mic and half the time it wasn’t close enough to the action. As a result a lot of the dialogue goes by without you hearing a thing. The music is typical for this type of film, but the theme song used during the love scenes is pretty silly.

What makes the film entertaining is the acting. Well, part of the acting anyway. Ross Hagan plays your typical tough guy with the heart of gold, and he isn’t bad in the part. The goofy hat he wears takes away a bit of his tough guy edge, but maybe it some was something all the sidehackers were wearing back in the day. McBain is pretty good as Rita. She certainly doesn’t deserve her violent end. Unfortunately both of our leads seem to be smokers, because they have some craggy voices and the bad sound has trouble with some of their more intimate dialogue.

J.C. and Cooch attempt to out yell each other, while
Paisley acts as the ref.
It is the villains that bring all the fun to Sidehackers. First there is Pataki as J.C. the completely insane, but poetic biker who decides that Rommel is his mortal enemy. From Pataki’s frothing at the mouth performance we can only deduce that J.C. is on some kind of drug (probably several). Pataki chews the scenery and gets more and more over the top as the film progresses. By the end he is practically drooling and ripping his hair out. He has some of the best line delivers in the film, especially when he is interacting with his right hand man Cooch (Michael Graham) or Paisley.

Cooch is no slacker when it comes to acting. When J.C. sends him to act as a double agent in Rommel’s gang, the whole exchange is filled with mugging, escalating volume and eye popping on both sides. But even better is the scenes where Cooch fears that Rommel’s buddies are on to him. I’m not sure what the actor was going for but it is sad to say he missed.

Finally there is our femme fatale, Paisley. She is actually the most grounded of the three, but she has her moments of over acting. Mostly she gets to looks sexy and slink around, then insult J.C. so he slaps her around again.

Crapout shows us his big stick.
I also have to mention Crapout, one of the most aptly named characters in Sidehackers. I’m guessing Howell was supposed to play an annoying country bumpkin who is also a biker, but man, does he just ramp up that stereotype meter to 11. Luckily he only appears in the final third of the film, but between his horrible jokes and mugging you begin to yearn for Paul Gilbert of Women of the Prehistoric Planet fame. Ok, maybe that’s going to far, but you get the idea.

Unfortunately, nothing really works in this movie. The sidehacking scenes are kinda interesting, only because I’ve never heard of the sport or seen it performed before. But the love story is tedious, and only around so the impact of Rita’s death can drive Rommel’s revenge. So it turns out that the revenge story is the focus of the whole film. But the execution doesn’t really make it worth your time to watch. I’m wondering if there is a whole subtext with characters named Rommel, Nero and Crapout as our heroes and a man with the same initials as Jesus Christ as the deranged rapist and killer. But that might be giving the film too much credit. Instead, Sidehakers serves as fodder for Joel and the Bots as the first of the 60s biker flick triad they tackled in Season Two.

Episode Review:

A sidehacker gets snuggly with his driver.
So here is an episode that includes a few firsts, and a few lessons for the folks behind Mystery Science Theater 3000. According to the writers, this was the film where they learned to screen the entire movie before giving Comedy Central the OK to pick up the rights for the show. Before this episode, they would watch a bit of the film to get an idea about it and then go forward. Well the crew only watched the first half or so of Sidehackers and saw the long love story scenes and the sidehacking and thought there was enough for them to work with, as well as providing a new genre for the writers to tackle.

When they sat down in the writing room to work on the first pass they were horrified by the increasing levels of violence and the disturbing rape and murder of Rita. It was obvious they would have to heavily edit the film to make an episode that was family friendly (something they prided themselves on). It would be less work to just pick a different movie and not use this one at all. Unfortunately, Comedy Central had spent the money and expected the crew to use it. Keep in mind, the show was popular enough to get a second season, but they didn’t have the clout yet to push back too much, so the writing team sat down and got to work.

Crapout, Nero and Rommel confront Cooch. I can't
believe I just wrote that sentence.
The result is a film that was heavily edited for content, something Best Brains was always loathe to do. They would edit for time, but in most cases they were able to keep all the key scenes in the film, and only snip a few moments here and there. For Sidehackers, whole plot points would have to be removed, and they would just have to work with it. While this didn’t render Sidehackers unintelligible, it did end up hurting the bad film even more, and created some really odd edits and moments in the final product. I have to say the fact that the writers were able to get some quality riffing out of this mess is impressive.

Cambot makes his first and only visual riff.
The movie opens with credits over footage of sidehackers racing around a dirt track. Tom notes that “They can’t be very good, they need training wheels.” When the film declares that it was filmed in Fantavision, Joel responds that he prefers “Orange Julius-vision.” When the motorcycles take a tight turn, the sidehackers have to lean close to the driver. During one of these moments, Crow blurts out “Hold me!” in a panicky voice.  The sidehacking scenes in general provide a ton of joke opportunities for the boys, making fun of color commentary, the sidehacker rigs and just about everything in sight. You also get the only time Cambot (the robot who is filming the whole experiment for the mad scientists) providing a visual riff.

This gulch is alive with the sound of Moog-sic.
Since you’ve got a character named Rommel in the film, the boys turn it into a running joke focusing on George C. Scott’s performance in Patton yelling, “Rommel you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” I found these pretty darn funny, and all three of the boys do a pretty good imitation of Scott’s take on Patton. They managed to work some of these in at the most unexpected moments. Another running joke takes place during the final third of the movie. Our heroes are sneaking around in a night raid of J.C.s camp, but it is all filmed as day for night – only with one of the worst filters I’ve ever seen. In fact there might not even be a filter, just a vain hope that other shots happening at the same time and obviously shot at night will convince the audience that the whole thing is taking place in the dark. The boys start arguing over if this is all happening at the same time, or if it really is night, or If there is a supernova illuminating everything. Your mileage may vary with those comments.

Sidehackers riffing moves in fits and starts for me. Sometimes you get some great lines. When J.C. slaps Paisley around after she implies he is lousy lover, he snarls the line, “But baby, what a great team we are!” to which Joel replies, “Like Punch and Judy.” Or during a long scene in a bar where the characters are negotiating hiring prices over a game of pool. Crow groans and says, “Since this film isn’t going anywhere, why don’t we all play pool!” But the long scenes of Rommel wandering around with Rita showing how in love they are, or the scenes with Rommel wandering around remembering Rita feel endless. There’s only so much riffing the boys can come up with and it ends up hurting the final product.

Joel and the bots model Rommel style head gear.
Because the movie was edited to hell, this episode actually has some pretty long host segments. They end up being a bit hit and miss for me as well. It starts off with Joel washing up the bots and getting them ready for the movie. He wants them to calm down and not utter another peep. Of course they start peeping and he loses it. For the invention exchange, Joel shows off his sentient slinky, Gretchen. She eats lint and does a funny impression of the 1960s. The mad scientists use Slinky technology to allow Dr. Forrester to be in two places at once. Looks painful. When we come back from the first movie segment, Joel and bots sing a song about sidehacking, which may or may not imply that you have to be stupid to take this sport on. At the next break, the boys try their hand at creating some sidehacking terminology to help color commentary. This gets crazier and more ridiculous but does go on a bit too long. I will give them props for working Electra-woman and Dyna-girl into the mix. When we come back to the boys they are dressed in Rommel’s stupid hat and trying to think of ways to imitate him. But whenever they mention Rita, the Moog music sting occurs and they break down in tears. It’s pretty silly, but then the skit keeps going when J.C. and Cooch show up (Mike and Frank dressed accordingly) and they berate Joel and the bots for not wanting to emulate J.C. When the movie ends the boys sing another song about how love pads the film. It is based on a riff they make during the long love sequence. The song is pretty funny, one of the best from Season Two.

Sidehackers does have its fans, and I have to say, I given this episode several viewings hoping to see the magic that others have caught. But honestly the whole thing never really works for me. The poor sound make catching the dialogue a real pain, the movie is a slog, and the riffing moves in patches. This is an early Season Two episode, and I think the boys got better as the season progressed. They would return to this genre with Wild Rebels and that riffing session was a lot better on all counts. But the best episode for these types of films would be The Girl with Gold Boots. I would recommend either of those films first, before tackling Sidehackers.

I give it two sidehackers out of five.

J.C. is disappointed with my rating.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol. 3

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wild Rebels (1967) - MST3K Review

Rod Tillman (Steve Alaimo) is a stock car driver that crashes… a lot. He ends up sucking so bad that he has to quit his job. As he’s wandering down the road to nowhere he runs into a trio of bikers. Jeeter (John Vella) is the leader of the pack and offers Rod an opportunity to score some easy cash if he works as their driver during a few heists.

At first Rod isn’t interested, even if the sultry skank Linda (Bobbie Byers) is all over him. But befuddled Lieutenant Dorn (Walter R. Philbin) approaches him. The Lieutenant tells Rod to accept the offer and help the cops catch the biker gang. Our hero agrees, but finds out that it’s not going to be easy. Banjo (Willie Pastrano) takes an immediate dislike to him. And Fats (Jeff Gillen) may not say much, but is more cunning than he lets on… at least the movie wants us to believe that. Will Rod be able to survive his adventure with The Wild Rebels?

Movie Review
Let's play a game, who do you think smells the worst?
The 60’s biker film was really a product of its time. This movie tries to capture the feeling of a rebellious counter culture, injecting sex, drugs and danger into one movie. The result is a mish mash of stupid characters doing stupid things and all of them ending up on the wrong side of stupid.

One of the big problems with Wild Rebels is that Rod just isn’t a hero; he’s a dork. When we meet him, he’s just crashed his stock car and it goes downhill from there. His antics at the club where he meets Jeeter’s gang are supposed to be cool, but he comes across more like a jerk and then a spaz when he dances. Once we see him in action as an undercover wheelman – well I don’t believe it for a minute and I’m not surprised that Banjo and Fats are suspicious.

Rod should really wear the helmet all the time.
The bikers are a piece of work. Jeeter is the leader because he seems to be able to string sentences together that involve words with three or more syllables. Banjo is rock stupid and angry. He’s supposed to be the dangerous one, but he’s easily befuddled by everything around him. Only his brute strength and rage make him the least bit scary. But I think he'd fall for the old, "Oh my God, what is that behind you?" trick. Fats is silent because of some kind of head trauma and the movie hints that he may be the smartest one, even if his mouth hangs open all the time and his eyes are glassy. Maybe it’s the drugs.

Linda in disguise as a "square". She even took a
shower to be more believable.
Linda is the femme fatale, but her seductive charms are immediately put in question when you realize that she sleeps with all three of the bikers. Ok, Banjo looks like he takes a shower once a month, and that’s only if he happens to fall into the cesspool next to the shack. She’s supposed to be appealing, and she almost is, but then you see the bikers start pawing at her and you shudder to think of what strange diseases she must have, or at the very least, a flea infestation.
But who is the dumbest character in Wild Rebels? My vote goes to Lieutenant Dorn. He goes on and on about how clever and smart the criminals are. Uh-huh. He automatically makes the idiot list because he’s outwitted by Banjo!

Banjo gets in touch with his inner Homo habilis.
Director William Grefe tries to make these moronic characters work in a typical heist story. He almost does it too. The core of the film could be entertaining on a basic level. If he had upped the intelligence of the bikers a bit and made Rod a little more likable this could have been a solid time waster. But the idiocy of the characters, and the stupidity of the script undermine his efforts. And believe me you can tell he’s trying. There are several attempts at interesting transitions from scene to scene. Some sequences look like they were thought out with some decent framing. He almost gets the racing action to work with its mix of stock footage and inserts of Rod driving.

But in the end Wild Rebels just never gels. You don’t believe these dolts could pull off a basic mugging much less a bank robbery. You don’t believe that Rod could deceive anyone, and you really don’t believe that Fats could run up all those stairs to get to the top of a lighthouse. The only rebels we need here are Joel and the bots!

Episode Review

Banjo won't ride unless Rod is wearing his helmet!
This film comes about half way through season two. It was also the middle episode of a trio of biker based films starting with Sidehackers and ending with The Hellcats. To be honest, this is my favorite of the three (although it has been years since I saw Hellcats I remember not being impressed by it).

For me, Wild Rebels is one of the stronger episodes of the season and I think the movie itself has a lot to do with it. There is just so much to work with here and Joel and bots seem to be having a lot of fun with it. Its less dower than The Sidehackers, but still filled with oily stupid characters that just beg to be mocked.

Most of the humor revolves around how dumb every one is. The bikers get riffed on mercilessly, with Banjo deservedly getting the focus of the humor. But “virgin goddess” Linda opens up a bunch of a jokes once she starts talking about doing all kinds of things “for kicks, baby!” Yes, you can predict the myriad of cereal references that Joel and the bots start throwing out there, but they get some surprisingly naughty lines in about her jumping from guy to guy.

Linda endures the song stylings of Mr. Alaimo.
The middle portion of the film slows down a bit as Rod attempts to get on Jeter's good side and some intrigue with the cops. These scenes are pretty talky, and the riffing suffers a bit. There is a funny moment where Rod attempts to serenade Linda, and that offers the perfect opportunity for Joel and bots to add their own lyrics.

However, the last quarter of Wild Rebels, from the bank heist to the shoot-out is full of great riffing. The chase sequence with its squealing tires as the cars drive through a swamp gives the guys lots of fodder. And when we hit the lighthouse the gloves come off and its pretty much non-stop comedy to the tragic conclusion.

Munchy Crunchy Wild Rebels Cereal! Bot tested
Mother approved!
The host segments aren’t too bad. Things start off with Gypsy being depressed, so Joel shuts down some of the higher functions of the ship so she can tell him about her problems. Looks like that might include the oxygen, as Joel takes a big breath before we go to commercial. When we come back, Gypsy is talking completely coherently and Joel is nodding, but looking a little blue. The mad scientists call and Gypsy takes back control of the ship. For the invention exchange the Mads create Hobby Hogs (instead of Hobby Horses). Joel takes the 3D chess from Star Trek and makes the 3D pizza. Then the movie starts. At the first break Joel explains how bikers could be intellectual. His visual aids are very silly. Up next is a hilarious commercial for the new cereal Wild Rebels the song is classic and the antics of the bots just make this the funniest host segment in the show. The next break has Joel singing to Gypsy and Crow and Tom arrive in full Banjo and Jeeter mode. The movie ends and Joel and bots party. The Mads are annoyed that the movie didn’t break them, but vow some real pain next time.

You don't want to know what fear smells like.
Easily the best of the biker flicks and one of the funnier episodes in an average season of the show. I give it four Banjos out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater Collection Volume 9.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Score Sample - Backdraft - Hans Zimmer

I've written about a lot of the biggest names in the film music, but there is one gentleman I haven't done more than mention. The fact is, he is one of the few film composers that folks on the street will recognize these days, at least by name. His film scores have appeared in some of the top grossing films of the last two decades. He created a unique sound for film scores in the 1990s, and that style has come to dominate the industry ever since.

The man is Hans Zimmer. In film score fandom, it is hard to find a more divisive figure. Some feel he is a film scoring god whose every word and note is worth hearing and praising. Others think his creation of the Zimmer sound is a plague on all modern motion pictures. Yeah there are some folks who fall in between, but the most vocal fall on one side or the other.

I enjoy some of his work, and when he's on, his music is very entertaining. One of the perfect examples of the Zimmer sound comes from his score to Ron Howard's film Backdraft. The piece below, Show Me Your Firetruck, contains all the elements of his style in it's early form. This piece made such an impression that it was used for both opening and ending credits for the Japanese version of Iron Chef. Now if that isn't a recommendation I don't know what is.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)

In the middle of the five year run of Urusei Yatsura (UY from now on), theatrical films were released to thrill Lum’s fans with some big screen adventures. Director Mamoru Oshii had worked on the series for quite a while, crafting some of the most popular episodes. He worked on the first film Only You in 1983, but felt a bit stifled creatively by the experience. When he was asked to work on the second feature Oshii insisted on more creative control. The result was a UY film no one saw coming.

It is the night before for the school festival at Tomobiki High. Everyone is busy creating their club presentations, working hard and having fun. Ataru (Toshio Furukawa) is doing his best to avoid Lum (Fumi Hirano) and hit on as many girls as possible. Mendou (Akira Kamiya) has managed to provide a full-fledged tank for Megane’s (Chiba Shigeru) bar.  Shinobu (Saeko Shimazu) is helping with the preparations, but only so she can be around Mendo. Onsen-Mark is running around attempting to maintain discipline. Before long Lum ends up electrocuting everyone and it’s time to head off to bed.

The next morning, it is the day before the school festival again. In fact for the last couple days, it has been the day before the school festival. No one seems to have a problem with this, except for Onsen-Mark (Michhiro Ikemizu). He goes to Sakura (Machiko Washio) to determine if he is losing his mind. She starts to investigate, and it becomes apparent that some supernatural force is playing with the students of Tomobiki High. Soon each one of them starts to notice some very strange things happening. Why is there a little girl in a white hat wandering around? Why does the town seem to be more and more empty each day? And where did that little piglet come from? Will this infinite day ever end? And if so, will any of our friends be willing to end it?

Good Points:
  • Some wonderful dreamlike visuals and editing
  • Manages to stay true to the characters while going in an unexpected direction
  • Nice balance of humor and surreal moments

Bad Points:
  • You need to know UY pretty well to enjoy this film
  • The English dub is really rough
  • Oshii’s slower pacing takes over during the surreal moments

On paper this movie shouldn’t work. Oshii’s surreal visions and measured pacing make an appearance here, but he also keeps the madcap antics of the characters. Surprisingly both parts mesh well and create a movie that is more than just a sequel to a sit-com. It is also a meditation on how we deal with our desires and how much we can delude ourselves if given the chance. Of course you can just ignore all that heady stuff and enjoy Lum floating around and zapping Ataru, because that happens too.

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

In Depth Review
Another day ends with everyone electrocuted
by Lum. But didn't this just happen yesterday?
When it comes to fans of Urusei Yatsura, Beautiful Dreamer seems to be a polarizing film. Some find all the surreal images, and slower pacing to be too much of a change from the frantic insanity of the series. Others liked that the movie tried to do something a little different, while still keeping true to the characters (although you could argue that Onsen-Mark never got that philosophical about life).

What is agreed is that this is one of the more adventurous outings for UY, and stylistically, it may have some of the most vivid and beautiful imagery of the franchise. The animation itself seems a bit rough for a feature film, but at the same time the series always looked a bit rough. Sometimes the character animation isn’t consistent, and there is some use of still frames and panning over the frames.

Mendou was just climbing the stairs, but Lum is
flying up them... causing Mendou to fall up!
Other times the film goes out of its way to show off some great visuals. The scene where the characters race around the dream-warped high school is filled to bursting with camera motion, bizarre angles and tracking shots. There are some great moments where the camera follows the characters as they crisscross in front of and behind each other. Then gravity switches and characters go from running up stairs to falling down them. It’s a wonderful use of animation to allow literally anything to happen.

Oshii uses this to his full advantage, and it is something that he would indulge in with Ghost in the Shell and Innocence. But I love his dream imagery in Beautiful Dreamer. Some of it is subtle, like the night drive with Ataru and Mendou in the beginning of the film. Something feels off, as the town is unusually quiet and the buildings seem to be extra dark. It creates unease around the characters. And once they run into the strange little girl, it really seems like a dream.

Water spreads across Tomobiki High School.
You also get a lot of water imagery, as well as shots of faceless mannequins, something that would pop up in both Ghost in the Shell films. Oshii does some great things with water in this film, having it spread slowly throughout the film sinking the school at one point. It seems like a mirror, and is often used in that fashion with the characters looking into it, or through it. But not really seeing the reality they expect.

As you expect the scope of the film goes beyond the television series. While the series was content with blowing up Ataru’s home or maybe having a giant penquin trample the town, it never ended up completely removed from reality before. Beautiful Dreamer is much like Paprika in the way it takes the concept of dreams and really uses them to the full advantage. Mendou flies the group up into the sky in his Harrier jet (because of course Mendou would have one hidden away). As he pulls up higher and higher, we see the world below shrinking into an unexpected image of the town on the back of a space traveling turtle! No, not Gamera, but a figure from Japanese mythology.

Ataru has a nightmare about failing at the most
important game of tag in his life.
Later on the dreamworlds start to collapse and fold on one another, and this allows Oshii and his animators to kick the fun visual stunts into overdrive. It’s a whirlwind of comic moments and bizarre scenes that even includes Ataru revisiting his first encounter with Lum during their cosmic game of tag.

However Oshii does indulge a some of his unique directorial flourishes here. There are several scenes of characters sitting and talking about the philosophical meanings of dreams and how living in a dream could be better or worse than real life. Oshii slows the action down to long pans, or close ups on motionless figures. He has moments of stillness that allow the unease to build, but also seem at odds with the frantic humor that appears in the film (and can’t be avoided with these characters). While it is neat to see Oshii letting his directorial voice come through, the contrast in tone is a bit jarring at times. It keeps Beautiful Dreamer from really firing on all cylinders. Oshii was able to correct this issue when he adapted Ghost in the Shell and toned down the humor of the manga and made the film much more serious.

Sakura listens to Onsen-Mark's tale of repeating
the same day. Reflections are a major visual theme
in this film.
The sound work goes right back to the television show for the most part. Lum’s flying and electrocution sound effects are carried over. While the film takes place in a dream world for the bulk of it’s running time, most of the sound work is based on real world elements. But there are some clever uses of isolated sounds dominating certain scenes, such as when Shinobu becomes separated from the group and the sound of wind chimes overwhelms her. The music was performed by Katsu Hoshi, which does a fine job carrying over his work from the UY television series.

When it comes to the acting, I have to say that Beautiful Dreamer should be watched in the original Japanese dub. There is an English dub available, but it is very rough, and just plain bad in places. I’m not sure if the cast didn’t know much about the characters, or had trouble making heads or tails of the story, but as a whole it doesn’t do the film justice. At the same time, the Japanese dub can be a problem. In some scenes the jokes and dialogue can be flying by. This causes the subtitles to move very quickly and you may end up missing some of the thematic lines that were worked into the script. But the Japanese actors obviously had a great handle on the roles by this point. Tough call, but in the end, I recommend the Japanese dub if your subtitle reading skills are honed. Otherwise give the English dub a try for the first viewing and if it gets to be too much, switch to Japanese.

Ataru is replicated in a non-existant mirror. Infinite
Ataru's... now that is a nightmare!
As I hinted at Oshii really wanted and obtained creative control of the film. It is very evident in the visual style, but it is also in the script which Oshii penned himself. Now some UY fans really feel that Oshii went too far from the original concept of the series which focused on silly jokes and jabs at Japanese culture. But I think Oshii actually found a solid balance of his interests with Rumiko Takahashi’s world. Essentially, he stays true to the characters for the entire running time. A few moments of long talky scenes seem a bit out of charcter for someone like Onsen-Mark. But it works for scenes with Sakura (who acts as the Sherlock of the film with Mendou as her Watson).

Oshii also managed to use Rumiko Takahashi’s love of Japanese folklore to help his story. This includes the moment with the giant flying turtle. It also ties to the concept of the “dreamer” itself, something that comes from an old folkstory that is similar to “Rip Van Winkle”.

See the turtle of enormous girth? It's not Gamera.
For me the big surprise of Beautiful Dreamer is how Oshii actually used Ataru, the teenage horndog and turned him into the lynchpin of the film. Yes, there is plenty of Lum action for all her fans. But in the final third of the film, it is actually Ataru who has to rise up and do something about the whole situation, and break the dream world cycle. But this doesn’t mean that Ataru has to do something completely out of character. In fact the whole thing is funny because Ataru is just being Ataru. In doing so, he realizes he has to break the cycle. It’s a clever twist that really works, and has you cheering on the stupid jerk as he does battle with the dream world.

As with all things Oshii invests himself in, there are themes at work in Beautiful Dreamer. Some of these are very similar to what we end up seeing in Ghost in the Shell, especially the question of “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” In this case, it has more to do with dreams and desires. “What do I want?” “What do I do when I get it?” “Can I live in a world where all my desires are provided all the time?” “How does this mesh with other peoples desires?” As the characters continue their journey in the dream world, it becomes apparent that only person is having the dream and the rest are all trapped inside it. Anyone who doesn’t fall in line with enjoying the dream is removed. So some of the characters are in danger of vanishing from this dream completely – and what would that mean for them? Is it death? Sakura begins to fear that since she is trying to determine what is happening that she may be the next to vanish. It is an interesting concept and one that Oshii delivers in both visuals and script.

Who is that strange little girl? And why is it summer time?
I first saw this movie before I'd seen any of the UY television series. The internet was still in its youth. So searching for UY didn’t give me much information other than Lum is a babe! and Lum is the hottest anime girl ever! type of websites on Geocities. I was able to follow the movie, but most of the humor went over my head, because so much of it was based on character interaction and knowing who all these people were. But I really appreciated the wonderful imagery and some of the set pieces. The chase through the darkened dream school is still an amazing visual tour-de-force.

Once the television series of UY was finally released in North America, I revisted this film and found it very entertaining. Beautiful Dreamer has a lot going for it, and while UY fans might not enjoy it too much (rumor is that even Rumiko Takahashi doesn’t care for it), I think fans of Oshii and anyone who enjoys seeing some classic animation in action will find something enjoy in the film. It is neat to see Oshii’s voice starting to emerge, and he would continue to explore his style and themes that he first introduced in this unique film.

Lum and her pals get a shocking view from the
Space Harrier!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Anime Archive - Urusei Yatsura

So as I was plugging away at my review for Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer I discovered I was spending half the review describing the television series that was the source for the film. I’m reviewing the film because I’m examining the works of director Mamoru Oshii. And while I enjoy Urusei Yatsura, I don’t think I’ll be giving it a full review for this blog.

That said, I didn’t want to bog down my Beautiful Dreamer review with a bunch of explanation of the series. So I figured I’d write up this primer to give those unfamiliar with the series a bit of a background. This should allow me to cover what I need to for the Beautiful Dreamer review. So here we go…

Little do they know how obnoxious the ETs are
going to get!
The title Urusei Yatsura is translated as “Those Obnoxious Aliens”. It started as a comic (manga) series created in 1978 by Rumiko Takahashi. Takahashi is one of the most popular manga creators in Japan, with many of her creations making the transitions to anime and film. In addition to Urusei Yatsura (which I’ll call UY from now on) she created Maison Ikkoku, Inu Yasha and one of my personal favorites Ranma ½. The manga series for UY ran until 1987 and proved incredibly popular.

This popularity brought about the creation of a television series in 1981. This lead to four theatrical films, original animated videos (OAVs), CDs and all kinds of merchandizing. Of course it was only a matter of time before the series came over to North America, and was one of the earliest official subtitled releases by Animeigo back in 1992. The character Lum, became a fan favorite, and even appeared in a Matthew Sweet music video in the early 1990s.

If you see UY mentioned, then it's only a matter of
time before someone mentions Lum (with her dad
in this picture).
These days, I don’t see too many folks talking about UY, but I still see Lum pop up when favorite anime gals are discussed. She’s considered one of the classics. But just who the heck is Lum?

The Plot
Shinobu and Ataru try to have a normal life
after their close encounter of a Lum kind.
UY essentially falls into the magical girlfriend genre. It focuses on comedy with a splash of romance. The television series can feel a lot like a sitcom but with outlandish characters, off the wall situations and a lot of humor based off of Japanese culture.

The first episode sets the stage. Ataru Moroboshi (Toshio Furukawa) is heading home from school one day. Ataru is an extremely unlucky lad who usually has one thing on his mind: girls. So while he is ogling some babes jogging he is abducted by government agents and spirited away to his home. He finds an enormous alien sitting in his living room. The aliens are called the Oni (based off the Japanese concept of demons). The reason their lord is sitting in Ataru’s living room is because the Oni will allow a duel dictate the fate of earth. If the Oni champion wins, Earth becomes a colony for the Oni. But if earth’s champion wins, then they will be spared. Ataru was chosen randomly by computer to be Earth’s champion.

Gloat now my smarmy little friend, it's all going to
go downhill in a moment. Notice he is wearing number
four. That is the equivalent of number 13 in asian
At first, Ataru scoffs at the whole thing. He’s no champion and the Oni are scary looking. But when it is revealed that the Oni are represented by the princess Lum (Fumi Hirano), that changes things. Lum may have tiny horns, but she’s cute as a button and wanders around in a tiger stripe bikini and go-go boots all day. Ataru can’t resist her, especially when it is declared that all he has to do is touch her horns. Horny Ataru is ready for the challenge. He’s got a whole week to do it after all.

Well, there is one little catch. Lum can fly. Now Ataru is hopelessly running around trying to touch Lum and failing spectacularly. Each passing day makes the people of earth more nervous (and hating Ataru more and more). On the final day, Ataru is despairing, but his childhood friend (and girl next door) Shinobu Miyake (Saeko Shimazu) declares that she will marry Ataru if his wins. Ataru is inspired by potential honeymoon rewards (and he has a thing for Shinobu). He comes up with a cunning plan, and manages to steal Lum’s bikini top. While she is busy trying to cover up, Ataru touches her horns and saves the earth.

The first of many electrocutions for Ataru. 
As he stands there gloating, he mentions that now he can get married. Lum thinks that means he wants to marry her, and she accepts. Now Ataru has a lovely alien girl hanging around him all the time. Shinobu is ticked off and thinks that Ataru did it all on purpose. And Ataru is just annoyed that every time he looks at another woman, Lum electrocutes him with her alien powers.

So the stage is set for wacky shinnaigans and silly adventures.


Since UY is framed like a sitcom much of the humor is mined from putting the trio of “lovers” into a variety of situations and see how they react. Much of the time additional characters are introduced to spice up the show. By the time the series, movies, and OAVs all ended the cast to UY was HUGE. But I’ll just cover the key characters that also appear in the Beautiful Dreamer film.

Ataru Moroboshi
Our protagonist is not the brightest bulb in the box. He loves looking, touching and talking about women – but has no tact at all when dealing with them. He eats like a typical teenage boy (which means he eats a lot all the time). He has the amazing ability to end up electrocuted at least once an episode. But he comes back virtually unscathed in the next one. Ataru is a coward, a sneak and lies if he is in trouble. He can be mean spirited and vengeful. The only thing keeping him from being a villain is that he’s a bit of an idiot. He’s more like the bumbling side kick.

Lum Invader
Bright, bubbly and not the least bit body conscious, Lum is a fun loving alien girl. She is also madly in love with Ataru. Why is anyone’s guess. When she isn’t flying around the town, she is usually found clinging to Ataru, or yelling at him, or electrocuting him. She is very jealous, and has a real problem with Shinobu and her childhood relationship with Ataru. Lum tends to be friendly and kind to everyone else. She doesn’t seem to mind all the attention she gets from boys, but girls had better avoid looking at Ataru when Lum is around.

Shinobu Miyake
Literally the girl next door, she’s been a friend of Ataru’s since they were young. She’s always liked him, even when he was acting like a horny teenager (which is pretty much all the time). Once Lum shows up, Shinobu feels out of her league. But this doesn’t stop her from feeling like Lum and Ataru are making fun of her devotion. When she is enraged Shinobu obtains superhuman strength as well as a large wooden mallet. Ataru usually ends up the focus of her wrath.

Shutaro Mendou
With a family that is of samurai decent and enormous wealth to match, Mendou has a lot going for him. Add the fact that he is devastatingly handsome, confident, classy and refined, well he’s pretty much the polar opposite of Ataru. But Mendou is still a teenage boy, and like all men in this series, he falls for Lum. But that doesn’t stop him from hitting on any other woman who shows interest. Mendou does have a secret – he is terrified of the dark, and will often fly into a panic in a dark enclosed space.

Lum’s Stormtroopers
Four teenage boys who worship the ground Lum floats over. They are friends with Ataru, but only so they can be close to Lum. Given the chance they will all turn on each other just to talk with her. The “leader” of the stormtroopers is Megane, with his glasses and serious attitude. He is usually the one making speeches or telling Ataru he’s a moron. Perm is the one with the poofy hair. He usually acts as Megane’s sidekick. Chibi is the short one that gets picked on by the other three. Kukugari is the large one who picks on Chibi the most. These four usually end up getting fried by Lum too, usually as a case of friendly fire.

He is Lum’s little cousin. Ten is small, floats around like a balloon, and breaths fire. You know, just like all little cousins do. He shows up early on to find out what kind of man Lum has devoted herself too. It doesn't take long for him to develop a strong hate for Ataru. Ten spends most of his time trying to convince Lum that Ataru is a loser. But Ten is a kid at heart and loves being pampered, will accept bribes of candy and has been known to act dumber than he is to get his way.

This tall, stunning woman is the school nurse. She is so alluring that the boys in the school hurt themselves on purpose just so they can be treated by her. Sakura is also a fully trained Shinto priestess. She has the power to exorcise demons and provide blessings. Her occult experience comes in very handy during the course of the series, as some kind of creature from Japanese folklore shows up in every other episode. She also has the ability to eat about 100 times her own weight. You’d be surprised how often that comes up.

He is a dedicated teacher at Tomobiki high school. He wants the kids to learn and he wants discipline in the class room. It should be a simple thing, right? Unfortunately, Onsen-Mark is no match for obnoxious aliens and massive destruction. No matter how hard he works, the kids in his class are too distracted by Lum and her antics to really pay attention. So he usually feels like a failure. He’s fallen for Sakura, but spends most of his time moping around and not feeling worthy of her strength and beauty.

Ataru’s Parents
Ever suffering because of their son, they do their best to put up with it. Many times Ataru and Lum's antics end up shaming the whole family. Worse the widespread destruction caused by all the aliens and bizarre vistors ends up destroying thier home and/or neighborhood. Dad hides behind his newspaper. Mother usually mentions how she never should have given birth to Ataru. When the whole neighborhood (or whole world) starts chanting for Ataru's demise, you start to wonder when these two will just bump their kid off.

I could describe why this is happening, but... I'll just
let your imagination go.
You can probably see from the various characters how this whole thing ends up going. UY is very silly and quite a bit of fun to watch. One of the things that really caught up fans in North America when it first was released, was how much you could pick up about Japanese culture and traditions from the show. So much of the humor is based off of breaking the traditions, and showing everyday life in Japan suddenly thrown for a loop by Lum and her zany adventures.

As is typical of sitcoms, the characters don’t really ever change. In that way it starts to feel old after a while. I mean how many times can Lum catch Ataru drooling on a woman (literally and/or figuratively) and electrocute him. Many, many times. Sometimes a new character adds a twist. Mendou is a great foil for Ataru, and they get into some funny situations, but eventually it loses its freshness.
Lum and Ten celebrate the end of this primer!
My biggest issue with UY, is the fact that I don’t like Ataru. He’s pretty much a stupid jerk. I want to see him get electrocuted. Since the whole series revolves around his lecherous ways, it ends up losing me after a while. I much prefer Ranma and his stubborn but loyal demeanor. Still, I can’t deny that Lum is very cute and looks great in a bikini. She is the main reason the series was so popular for so long. And whenever you see anyone mention Urusei Yatsura it is followed quickly by mentioning Lum.