Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nostalgia Nugget: My First Bond... James Bond

And then... there were ninjas everywhere!

So I have a little theory. The first actor you see as James Bond tends to be the one you always associate with the role. This is especially true if you see your first James Bond film in the theaters. I’ve tested my theory a few times and it holds true for the majority of folks. There are a few wild cards out there that break convention and pick Peter Sellers as their favorite Bond even if they saw On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with Lazenby as Bond.

Of course, whenever I talk about my crazy theory, someone always asks, who my favorite actor is playing the role of 007. I end up sputtering, and dithering and babbling for a while. But it comes down to – I like them all for different reasons. This results in people frowning and saying, “Come on Roman, pick one. Don’t cheat.” And still I rock back and forth and whimper and sob and can’t pick. I can pick a favorite film from each actor, but I just can’t pick one actor over the other. Sometimes I’m in the mood for Connery and other times only Brosnan will do.

In the 80s even ninjas had big hair.
This might be because my exposure to the world of James Bond came in fits and starts. Let’s go back in time for a bit. I remember staying at my grandmother’s house for some reason, maybe a family holiday or a visit. Not sure. Anyway, my grandmother loved action films, and it was the 1980s, so ninjas were all the rage (but this is pre-ninja turtles, I’m thinking early 80s here, around the era of The Octagon and Enter the Ninja). So my grandmother popped in this VHS that she swore had ninjas in it. So I’m watching this odd movie about this English guy running around hitting on ladies, watching a Sumo match, and flying in a tiny helicopter. I remember the evil bald guy and the cat, not to mention his lake with piranha in it. But I mostly remember it taking FOREVER for the ninjas to show up, and when they did the movie got pretty crazy with action. But man did it take forever to get there.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had seen my first James Bond movie: You Only Live Twice.

What I always assumed was the first James Bond movie I ever saw was A View to a Kill, good old Roger Moore’s swan song. I saw this for a friend’s birthday. We took in a Christopher Walken double feature. Yeah, I’m not sure how that worked either. Anyway, the theater was showing Brainstorm and A View to a Kill. We saw both films. What I remember most about that experience was the girls. I thought Tanya Roberts was pretty darn sexy, but found Grace Jones to be kinda freaky. I also remember all of us imitating Mr. Walken as Zoran for a couple months afterward, especially the line, “More! More power!” But I’m afraid to report that Brainstorm and its bizarre imagery made a bigger impression.

But I saw all the Bond films in the theater going forward (until Quantum of Solace which I never got around seeing until picking up the DVD). I remember seeing the Dalton films and enjoying them. But I was more into fantasy and sci-fi films at that point and didn’t fully appreciate the fantasy of the Bond universe.

It's  blast from the past, Mr. Bond!
I gave the series a try at some point. I thought Goldfinger was the first movie (this was pre-internet, so I couldn’t look this stuff up. I was info from people who made educated guesses about the first Bond movie).  I remember watching the VHS of Goldfinger and finding it odd that it included a Pink Panther cartoon with a spy theme, and a trailer for Thunderball on it. I enjoyed Goldfinger a great deal and ended up watching the next few movies. I had the oddest experience of déjà vu while watching You Only Live Twice and then remembered my grandmother’s weird “ninja movie” and made the connection. I don’t think the video store had On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, because I didn’t see that one till much later. Instead I went to Diamonds Are Forever. It stopped my exploration of the series cold, because it was so bad. Most of the folks I knew thought Mr. Moore was campy, and if they were worse than Diamonds, I was done.

Goldeneye came out in 1995, and I remember the ramp up to that movie creating a lot of excitement for the new Bond film. The video store I worked at picked up all the previous James Bond films, and on Laserdisc even! I decided to give the series another spin. This time I was armed with the store’s video guide, so I could actually start with Dr. No and make my way forward. I watched each Bond film and that was probably when the whole thing clicked. I developed an appreciation for the series and the incredible legacy of pop culture it created. It was around then that I determined which ones were my favorites, and which ones were better left unseen (Diamonds Are Forever didn’t improve with this viewing, and A View to a Kill  surprised me with it’s ridiculousness, something I didn’t remember from that viewing in my youth).

I already blogged about how Goldeneye made James Bond cool again in the 1990s. But there really was a bit of spy mania in that decade, from about 1994 on. MGM fueled the whole thing with amazing releases of the James Bond series on DVD that included amazing documentaries about the films, the creators and the some of the fervor the films created when they were released. I think those DVDs were very responsible for me becoming a fan of the series.

Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on Laserdisc!
It is because of this round about discovery of the James Bond series that I don’t really have a favorite James Bond actor. I don’t know if I count Connery, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan as the “first” James Bond I experienced, because I like all of them for different reasons, and each one of them had a movie that was part of that introduction. I didn’t see one as “the” primary actor. In a way that allows me to be more objective than some of the more hard-core fans I’ve run into who live and die by their actor. It also allows me to be curious when the change the actor and not outraged by the choice.

But still that question comes up, and I can never answer it without sputtering, flailing and falling down a lot. So next time, just ask me what my favorite Bond movie from a specific era or decade is, and we’ll all be just fine. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) - MST3K Review

To really get a handle... get it? Hand-le... Ok, I'll stop. Anyway, this episode starts with the short Hired – Part 2. This is the second half of an industrial short film made by Chevrolet in the early 40’s. It follows a sales manager who attempts to figure out why his salesmen aren’t successful. This involves montages of men with hats, and discussions about test driving. Probably the best scenes involve the middle-aged manager discussing the problems with his father who at one point puts a handkerchief on his head.

As for the feature, Michael (Hal Warren) takes his family on a nice little trip. Little Debbie (Jackey Neyman) has brought along the family dog, Pepe. Margaret (Diane Mahree) seems to spend most of her time doubting Michael's choices. It becomes very obvious why she does this. After a very long driving sequence, they find themselves lost. They arrive at a lodge in the middle of nowhere. There they meet Torgo (John Reynolds), a bizarre man with large knees. After some pressuring by Michael, Torgo allows the family to stay, even though he mentions that “The Master will not approve”. 

For most folks, that would ring some warning bells, but Michael is an idiot, so he gets the family settled in for the night. Almost immediately things go wrong. Pepe is killed, Debbie gets lost, Margaret is pawed at by Torgo and Michael can't get the car to start. Then The Master (Tom Neyman) arrives. This wacko worships the god Manos, has a bunch of wives that bicker and argue, and he has his sights set on Margaret as his newest bride! Will Michael obtain a molecule of common sense and save his family? Or will they all end up as sacrifices to Manos the Hands of Fate?

Dr. Giggles addresses the audience. 
Let's look at Hired: Part 2 first. It is the follow up to the short shown in the previous MST3K episode, Bride of the Monster, so if you want to follow the story then you may want to check that out. Or don't. You see Hired: Part 2 comes with a handy recap of the previous short. Essentially the sales manager requires the home spun wisdom of his father to realize that a real leader of men needs to, um, well actually lead. You can't just hire people and then let them run around without an guidance. Once the sales manager realizes this he turns over a new leaf.

Hired is like a lot of industrial films. It’s very serious, kinda goofy in it’s tactics and tries to hammer home it’s points. Is it bad? Not really. It has some valid points about mentoring and using knowledge as a tool for sales. It’s just the odd little moments that make the short entertaining. There’s the main character’s father, who looks and sounds like he should be in Grapes of Wrath. There’s the intense montage of high pressure salesmanship that looks like a World War II propaganda reel. Then you have the sales manager breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience directly in a “What have we learned here?” way. It is interesting to see what kind of sales tactics Chevrolet used back in the day, and it provides plenty of material for Joel and the bots to work with.

It is true, more people can identify Torgo than they
can identify their Vice President.
Until Mystery Science Theater 3000 did this show, few people had heard of Manos: The Hands of Fate. In a way MST3K needed Manos and Manos needed MST3K. They both became infamous because of their work together. Suddenly MST3K wasn't just a silly puppet show, but a daring series that unearthed some really god awful films. And Manos: The Hands of Fate became the poster child for "the worst movie of all time". The fame of both soared, and once the Manos episode hit VHS, even more people were exposed to the flick. These days, any bad movie fan worth his or her salt has seen Manos as many times as The Room or Birdemic. Hell, Manos was even made into a video game. Take that Red Zone Cuba!

So what is it about Manos: The Hands of Fate that makes it so horrible? The basic story is simple. A family gets lost, meets up with a cult and tries to escape. You’ve got a small set of characters, some conflict and some creepy atmosphere – this could be a successful low budget film. But the ineptitude creeps in all kinds of ways.

Settle in folks, this driving scene last nearly 3 years.
Well let's start with the opening sequence. It is essentially the family driving, and driving and driving, with nothing but a really bad 60’s song blaring in the background. Supposedly the opening credits were intended to unspool over this footage, but it never happened. This leaves you with one terribly long boring sequence right at the start of the film.

Then there’s the fact that the camera and film stock are extremely low grade, giving the whole thing a real home movie feel, or worse, the look of a snuff film. Camera angles are rudimentary at best, and it looks like most of the editing was done in camera or by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. Scenes seem to stop randomly, start before “Action” is called, or in the middle of dialogue. Rumor has it that the production could only afford film scraps, and so all the shots were short by necessity.

Freddie Mercury is Maude!
The script to Manos isn’t too bad, as far as low budget films go. It’s very simple and sometimes the characters repeat themselves (I wonder how much of this was improvised). The lines all make sense and convey the plot, but they don’t do much more than that. Some of the plot ideas have merit for a horror film. The Master gathering wives for his cult is sinister. The idea that Torgo and the Master are both after Margaret has a real creepiness to it. Then they film the scene where Torgo paws at her and it gets even more disturbing. 

I mentioned the blaring song at the beginning, but the entire selection of music is really odd. There are themes, of a sort. Torgo has the most distinctive one, and it is usually the theme that pops into anyone's head when they think of this movie. There seems to be music specifically for the chase scenes. It all simplistic and none of it is very long, and so you get to hear it looped over and over again. But it does all end up giving the film an actual musical identity, which is something other really bad films lack. 

"We brought the kid, where's the money?"
What makes Manos: The Hands of Fate really fail (or provide rich comedic value) are the performances. Some characters appear to have been dubbed after the fact, especially the cops and kissing couple. There are points where it sounds like there is one person doing all the male voice for the characters on the screen. Other times the actors go WAY over the top with facial expressions and hand gestures. Were they told they were rolling without sound?

The family is hilarious. Hal Warren, who did triple duty by directing and writing this film, makes Michael come across like a complete idiot. His actions are senseless and would make a brain dead box turtle look normal. Like nearly everyone else, he overacts violently, but is also capable of looking a lost in front of the camera. I believe Michael is supposed to be a sympathetic hero: a husband and father who made a wrong turn and now must protect his family. Warren makes you cheer when the idiot gets attacked, because he deserves it.

Margaret is an odd character. She knows there’s something wrong about the place the minute they get there, but dumb old Mike doesn’t want to leave. Mahree overacts too, but she’s actually fun to have around. The moment where she throws back her head and wiggles it around yelling “Mike! MIIIIKEEEE!” is very funny. I do end up feeling a bit bad for Margaret, but she should have realized what a moron she had married.

Then there is little Debbie. She’s your typical precocious daughter, who disappears and causes worry, and then re-appears with a Hell Hound. There are times when Jackey is obviously bored and annoyed by the filming of Manos, and it’s kind of funny to see these moments caught on the film. Mostly she just seems like a little kid who making movie because her daddy is in it.

"Have you considered taking Manos into your life?"
Speaking of daddy, Tom Neyman plays, The Master. As the driving force of evil in the film, Neyman goes for long stares and a creepy voice. He could almost be scary except for his goofy robe with hands on it and some of the flailing motions he makes with his arms. The Master is also prone to long silly monologues about the power of Manos and the Will of Manos. Neyman isn’t bad, and adds a bit of creepiness to the film.

Various actresses play his wives and you get some serious bad acting with this lot. I think most of them were hired because they didn’t mind rolling around in mock combat in diaphanous robes. They get some of the dumbest lines in the film, such as “The man, YES! The child, NO!” Most of them chew the scenery and a few look bored or possibly high on something.

Torgo in his action slacks!
But the favorite of Manos and most distinctive character is Torgo, the bizarre caretaker of the house. With his floppy hat, satyr like beard, huge thighs and knees, and bizarre staff with a hand on it, Reynolds makes Torgo the most interesting character. Then he speaks, and it’s sealed – Torgo steals the movie from everyone. His stuttering goat-like performance is classic stuff. I believe he was supposed to be a goat turned into a human, or maybe a satyr. It would explain his appearance and acting style. Reynolds throws himself into the role, and really makes it work. Torgo is creepy, funny, and pathetic all at the same time. 

Manos is one of those movies that is bad in spite of the fact that the cast and crew tried to do something. With some bad movies, you can tell that no one cared. But with this one, there was an attempt to make it spooky or creepy. In places it nearly succeeds. But as a whole, the ineptitude just shines through. Yes, Manos: The Hands of Fate is a bad movie and what better target for Joel and the bots at their prime.

MST3K Review:
Tonight on Night Gallery, women and the Manos
who love them.
Not only did this movie become infamous because of its appearance on MST3K, but this episode is often considered one of the highlights of the Comedy Central years. This episode was also part of a one two punch that ended season four (the final season in which Joel hosted for the entirety). Previous to this episode, MST3K tackled their first Ed Wood masterpiece: The Bride of the Monster. To follow that film with Manos: The Hands of Fate is either genius or insanity. Perhaps it was the divine will of Manos. Either way, Mr. Wood was often considered the worst director of all time. But when you see what Hall Warren created here, you really have to eat those words. Because Manos shows you what a bad movie can really be.

The dead eyes, the handkerchief on his head, this
man has seen too much.
Things start off well with the Hired: Part 2. This creation from Jam Handy (the folks who would bring us A Case of Spring Fever with Coily and his evil) and it is as ernest and good intentioned as you could hope for. Besides talking about leadership it also manages to be a propaganda piece for Chevrolet.

The entire scene where our protagonist talks with his father on the porch about his troubles is riffing gold. The sales manager shouts nearly all his lines, and his father swats at flies we can't see and then puts the napkin on his head. Tom says as the Sales Manager "I'm sobering up and you're starting to scare me." 

"Are you, or have you ever been a Ford owner?"
Then we jump into the scenes where the sales manager works with his staff. There is one exceptional loser (who we followed in Hired: Part 1), and the boys have lots of fun with him. The whole thing spirals into a montage of quick action, close ups of men talking, showroom gawking and test drives. Tom declares it "Triumph of the Salesman!" The final result is a solid riffing session for the short, not the best they ever tackled, but one that gets you nice and ready for a full blown riff-fest that is coming up.

To be honest, Manos starts off with it's most difficult sequence, the extended driving scenes as Michael and his family journey to the Valley Lodge. Joel and the bots do come up with some good stuff, mocking the quotes around the word "Manos" in the title, and commenting on all the fields that go by. They even start to lose it a little bit, reminding me of the rock climbing scenes in Lost Continent or the sandstorm scenes in Hercules Against the Moon Men. One of my favorite comments is when we get a close up of Michael and Joel says, "How come every frame of this movie looks like a last known photo." Crow replies with "It is filmed in Zapruder Vision". It's a pretty good riffing sequence for Joel. Usually Mike and the bots did a better job with those long stretches of nothing like Starfighters or The Beast of Yucca Flats.

Torgo performs some Dance Magic.
But things certainly improve when Torgo makes his appearance. If there was ever a character tailor made for MST3K, it has to be Torgo. His wobbly gait, his stuttering speech, his twitchy nature all lend themselves to excellent riffing. All the boys do a great job imitating his vocal performance and laughs really kick into high gear. 

I also love all the riffs based on the fact that the family dog is killed and the parents don't want to tell little Debbie. Joel provides plenty of riffs as Michael telling his daughter, "Stop this nonsense about a dog, you never had a dog." To which Crow answers as Debbie, "What about my dog?"

It's about this time that the host segments also start playing into how bad Manos: The Hands of Fate is. Each time the boys comment about the horror of the film. The mad scientists actually contact Joel to apologize about the film. Frank and Dr. Forrester even use the same words, "We really went too far this time. I'm sorry." 

The real reason this film was made.
When The Master shows up, all bets are off. Michael makes dumber and dumber decisions, messing around with the car while his daughter gets lost and his wife is hit on by Torgo. Eventually he gets his revolver and wanders around in the desert only to be knocked out by one of The Master's wives. Joel asks, "When is this guy going to demonstrate some simple common sense?" Never, I'm afraid. 

Those wives! The scenes of them bickering go on way too long, but Joel and the bots join into the conversation adding all kinds of additional things to bicker about (other than human sacrifice and killing Torgo). Stuff like buying the cleanser with the whole skin care package. When The Master tries to restore order and keeps shouting "Silence!" Joel adds, "is golden!" 

Oh ick, they're watching "Manos" again.
Then you have the scenes with the kissing couple, and Tom wonders why they drinking A1 sauce from the bottle. When the sheriff shows up, Joel points out that one guy is performing as both the sheriff and the beau. Then you have the coda scenes with the two ladies who end up at the Valley Lodge to meet the new caretaker. Tom goes off the deep end performing a long monologue as one of the ladies, while we are treated to another long driving scene. Joel and Crow are stunned. 

The host segments for Manos: The Hands of Fate are pretty entertaining. The show opens with Joel programming the bots to agree with everything he says. Sounds like a good idea… at first. Then Joel and Mad scientists do their invention exchange. Joel creates a machine to make un-funny comic strips funny. The mad scientists come up with a cool little guillotine for chocolate bunnies – just in time for Easter! The first break has Joel and Bots attempting to recreate the long driving scene from Manos. They flub it and break down in tears. Frank apologies for the movie. The next break has a great discussion on what makes Torgo a monster. Then Joel and bots come up with their own monsters. Later Joel puts on an outfit similar to The Master’s, except his has feet on it. Everyone breaks down, and Doctor Forrester apologizes for the film. In the finale, the bots try to wrestle like the wives in the movie. Meanwhile the mad scientists get their pizza delivered – by Torgo! Yep, that’s Mike Nelson doing a great imitation of Torgo. He would appear a few more times in future episodes while the show was on Comedy Central.

This host segment makes "Manos" an Easter episode.
No really, it does!
Manos is a fan favorite episode. Most people who enjoy the show rate this one very highly. I enjoy it quite a bit myself, but the long driving sequence is a bit of a drag. It is also one of those episodes that I find really funny sometimes, and less amusing other times. You really have to be mentally prepared for how bad this movie really is. I wouldn't rate it as the worst film the series tackled, but it is right down there with The Beast of Yucca Flats or Monster A-Go-Go.

This is not an episode I would start a newbie with. The movie is too bad for most people to even conceive of. This is an episode that is better appreciated after you’ve seen a few episodes of MST3K or have watched a good share of bad movies. If that sounds like you, and you haven’t seen this episode, seek it out. The Master will be very pleased.

I give it four and half hand of fate out of five.

This episode has been released a few times on DVD. Rhino gave it a single disc release as well as including it as part of their Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection – The Essentials, which also had Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Shout! Factory gave it a great two disc special release which included documentaries about making the film, as well as interviews with MST3K cast and a documentary about the industrial shorts by Jam Handy. 

And now, some additional pics of the cast having a good time with the episode.

Such a wonderful pose. It can only inspire.

"Come to me Tom Servo. I am the magnet and you
are steel!" "You look like Maude."
Torgo is fascinated by Frank's hair.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

Color me shocked when I saw that this movie came out ten years ago. In some ways anime has evolved quite a bit since 2004. But it also marks the last time that director Mamoru Oshii helmed a story in the Ghost in the Shell universe. This film was released after the television series Stand Alone Complex aired in 2002. For many the television version was the way a Ghost in the Shell story was supposed to be. But Oshii was going to do what he does best, and that means tell the story with lots of slow pans, long dialogue scenes and amazing visuals.

It has been a number of months since the events of the previous Ghost in the Shell film; Section 9 is still operating as an anti-tech-terrorist unit, but without the guiding hand of Major Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka). Instead her former partner, Batou (Akio Ohtsuka) finds himself teamed up with Togusa (Kouichi Yamadera), on a case that appears to involve a serial killer. Someone is hacking into the cyber brains of servile androids and causing them to kill their owners. When several of these owners turn out to be prominent politicians and businessmen, a foreign power is suspected behind the plot.

As Batou and Togusa dig deeper into the investigation they find that these servant androids are actually prototype models of illegal sex-roids. Is the company creating them, Locus Solus, covering up a mistake in the new cyber brains, or is something more sinister going on? It all leads to a tangle with a yakusa gang, Batou getting his cyber brain hacked, a house of illusion and a final battle against an army of killer gynoids aboard a huge ship.

Good Points:
  • Some beautiful visual sequences and tense action scenes
  • Explores themes and ideas beyond the main plot
  • Expands on the world created in the first film

Bad Points:
  • Moves very slowly with lengthy dialogue sequences
  • Lacks the stand out action sequences of the previous film
  • Far removed in tone and tempo from the manga and television series

Expectations are the key to this movie. If you are expecting a solid follow up to the previous Oshii film, then you’ll be fine with this movie. Just know that it moves much slower and spends more time philosophizing about existence then ever before. Action hounds will be disappointed, with the exception of one scene. But animation fans will have a visual feast, as Oshii creates vivid and memorable settings and sequences that will stay in your mind long after you’ve seen the film.

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

In Depth Review
A killer doll, or a doll made killer?
This movie is a tough one to review. Much like Ghost in the Shell, it is very serious, very cold and often more concerned with theme and atmosphere at the expense of plot and characters. But that is what makes the film stand apart from much of the other science fiction films and anime of the same era. Compared to something like The Matrix and its sequels (heavily influenced by the original Ghost in the Shell), Innocence feels more like an art film than anything else.

But to be very honest here, Mamoru Oshii takes all the elements that seem to annoy critics of his films and indulges in them endlessly in this film. I don’t like to use the term self-indulgent, but in many ways Innocence feels exactly that. You get the feeling that Oshii is more concerned with cramming as many quotes from literary sources into his film as possible. Or including as many scenes with a basset hound as possible. Or having as many long slow dialogue scenes as possible. It feels excessive. But for all that, it is part of what makes an Oshii film an Oshii film. I don’t whine about David Lynch showing another scene of red curtains blowing in the wind, or a blonde with ruby red lips exhaling smoke in extreme close up. That’s just what he does.

Batou is our hard boiled hero.
Oshii builds this film off of the world he created in Ghost in the Shell, but there are a few changes. First off, it feels more like a noire film than science fiction. Batou becomes our gruff detective out to solve the mysterious crime. There are plenty of scenes where Batou moves in and out of shadows. The city (still appearing to be Hong Kong) is a dirty dangerous place, and in many ways feels more oppressive and grim than in the previous film. Adding to this feel are the cars roving the street, looking like they could have rolled out of Chinatown or Double Indemnity. Of course inside they have full-blown computer systems, but on the outside they look like 1940s cruisers.

The other major change is the color palette. It is based on yellows, golds and oranges. This gives the movie a very unique look, a warm feel at odds with the coldness of the characters and the direction. Darker scenes end up a murky wash of yellows and browns. But later in the film, we a dazzling array of gold, copper and brilliant bronze reflections as Batou and Togusa explore the estate of a hacker who may have already penetrated their cyber brains. The contrast between the visual warmth of Innocence and the cool world of Ghost in the Shell makes for a striking and interesting contrast. It explains why Oshii felt the need to go back to his older film and change the hues more toward that warmer palette (but you can read my thoughts about that little redux over here).

One of many amazingly detailed settings.
Even with the changes to the style, the detail, depth and scope of the film are impressive. The backgrounds and settings are filled with all kinds of little elements and intricacies. At the time it pushed animation detail to an amazing level, one I have rarely seen topped. While the film does take its sweet time doing anything, it does slow down to allow us to really drink in these visuals.

Innocence has a few action scenes in it. The most impressive is when Batou takes on a whole building full of gun touting gangsters. The action is fluid and a nice mix of angles and perspectives. The finale scene also focuses on Batou as he raids a floating gynoid factory as all the defenses are armed. This includes the androids themselves: dolls with the ability to smash a man’s head into pulp. The scene jumps from Batou’s perspective, and his cyber vision feeding him critical information, to amazingly animated combat. But none of these scenes are as exciting as the highlights from the previous film.

Sound effects work is excellent in this film, and it should be considering they got Skywalker Sound to give them a hand. It really immerses you in the world. The quieter scenes work great, especially the scenes inside the mansion of illusion. But the action scenes are a blast, with gunfire seeming to rain all around.

Batou and his guardian angel battle the dolls.
Composer Kenji Kawai returns to work with Oshii again. Innocence is a natural extension of the musical sound he used in the previous film. It is moody and atmospheric, with no real themes or melody. Percussion and simple strings are used to create tension pieces or pulsing moments. The stand-out pieces are the vocals, and once again Kawai uses ancient Japanese singing style and lyrics to create an audio contrast with the high tech world. The new theme song is actually a revision of the previous film’s with slightly altered lyrics and melody. Kawai also worked on a couple of torch songs that play in the film and fit the overall noire feel. It’s an interesting and eclectic mix, one that will rub some viewers the wrong way. But I think Kawai’s score and songs actually help make these films stand out from the crowd.

The DVD I have of this film is actually in Japanese only, so I have to judge the voice acting as best as I can. It is the same cast reprising their roles, and they do a fine job with them. Especially given the fact that they have many long dialogue scenes to work through.

The journey to the mansion is a visual treat.
The script for Innocence is actually based on one of the manga stories from the original run of Ghost in the Shell written and drawn by Masamune Shirow. Unlike the previous film, which combined several of Shirow’s stories into one, this film uses the single story as the focal point. Oshii penned the script himself and keeps a few key moments from the original manga intact. An example is when Togusa nearly gets killed and says “All I could see was my wife and my daughter.” To which Batou replies, “That wasn’t your wife or daughter, they were angels of death”.

And speaking of quotes, Oshii decided that Shirow’s original dialogue just didn’t include enough literary quotes. So he grabbed Bartletts and started highlighting. The result is a film filled with characters quoting Milton, Confucius and ancient proverbs. It becomes a bit comical at times, trying to imagine a world where everyone has extensive knowledge of these texts. The quotes do all end up working with the themes of the film, so I can’t fault the selection, but I do end up wondering if Oshii is trying to impress us with these lines, or if he figured that everything he wanted to say had already been said, so why rephrase it. It’s an interesting choice, and once that ends up distracting me as the film continues.

The mansion is filled with reflective and metallic
Ghost in the Shell was concerned with the nature of life. What do we consider “alive” and to that point, what do we consider “human”. Was Kusanagi, a woman who was pretty much completely synthetic except for her brain a human? And was project 2501, a program the gained sentience and seeking to reproduce also “human”? Innocence goes a step further, asking if something that we don’t even consider animate capable of having a soul? This is an idea that seems very strange to Western thought, but is something that is very much part of Japanese culture and ancient Shinto beliefs.

As the investigation continues, Batou and Togusa discover that the killer androids all end up destroying their cyber brains. But one message is clearly found, the single phrase: “Help me.” This puzzle causes them to wonder who is asking for help, the killer, the victims, or is it somehow coming from these “dolls”, who are being mass produced to serve humans as slaves and sex toys. How far does making something look human go toward giving it a soul? Can a doll be alive?

The blood of the victim obscures Batou's view.
The two men are given multiple answers to the question as the film continues. A coroner tells them that dead human flesh and “dead” mechanical body parts are very similar. They meet a cyber hacker who has completely abandoned his flesh and lives only in his machines and false bodies. And then there is the Major, a fusion of a woman and a cybernetic program, alive on the internet, but physically dead. Kusanagi is literally a ghost in Innocence, mentioned often, and obviously mourned by her companions. But she is still listed as “missing” by Section 9, and Batou talks about her like she is still alive. When he does eventually run into her, she is called a “guardian angel”, a being transcended and alive, but nothing like the physical characters in the film.

There is another subtheme about perception. This is something Oshii has been exploring since his early days with Urasei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. In this film, there are countless shots of eyes, POV shots and strange shots with fisheye lens effects. You have many scenes of characters looking and being looked at. And most disturbing are the scenes of the lifeless eyes of the “dolls” staring at us. These scenes build a visual motif asking us how do we perceive life. Is it simple enough to trust our eyes to tell us when something is alive?

Hope you like hound dogs, because this movie is
full fo them.
Oshii makes a point in Innocence to say this is not the case. Many times in the film are we presented with false images. Batou has his brain hacked into, and nearly kills several innocent people because he believes he is under attack. We see most of this scene from his point of view, a flawed one. Later in the film it is Togusa who is hacked, and we see a sequence in the mansion of illusion play out three different ways, because Togusa cannot distinguish reality from the program sent to his mind. If humans are so easily fooled by these tricks (including the viewer of the film, who is along for the Groundhog Day-esque antics), can these humans be certain that what they view as “alive” is truly alive.

The mystery is eventually solved, with the killer being exposed and the murder spree halted. But Batou wonders about all the “dolls” that were forced to act in such a horrible manner. What did they feel? Could they feel at all? How many victims were in this crime?

The bizarre fisheye lens forces our perspective on
the scene, and the dead eyed hacker's words.
The hacker without flesh says that the world only contains a single type of perfect life form – animals who live in the present and know only what they experience at that time. They don’t have human memories or desires or corruption. They aren’t helpless like dolls. The movie ends with Batou holding his dog and looking at a child’s doll. It’s blue eyes eerily mirroring the eyes of the killer gynoids.

So yes, even the scenes with the basset hound managed to merge with the theme that Oshii is exploring in innocence. As we watch Batou and his dog stare into the eyes of the doll, we are left wondering if there is a ghost in that shell.

What the doll sees.
When it comes down to it, I find it hard not to compare Ghost in the Shell with Innocence. I guess it is inevitable that you do that with sequels. According to Oshii, he wanted to Innocence to stand on its own, and I’m not sure it can. The depth of the themes require you to understand the Major and her story from the first film. She plays a huge role in the finale, and if you don’t know anything about her, you’d be lost. So, I think this film is tied to the previous one, and tightly in many ways.

Innocence feels like an extension of theme and plot from the first film. But it also feels a bit redundant thematically. It explores and restates much of what Oshii covered in the first film, but with longer dialogue scenes, and a slower pace. Yes, it is a gorgeous film, and the eye candy alone makes it worth seeking out. But when it was over, I realized why I hadn’t revisited it in nearly ten years. Ghost in the Shell covered this, and did it exceptionally well. Innocence plays like a coda, crafted to suit the creator more than the viewer. It is an interesting film, but not a necessary one. 

And now a selection of various shots of the staring dolls, just to haunt your dreams and retard your sleep.

Doll: Evidence in the morgue
Dolls: Puppets watching Togusa
Doll: Sacrificial burning during a celebration
Dolls: They approach in legion
Doll: Broken and spattered in still warm blood.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Anime Juke Box - RideBack - RideBack

So I readily admit that my nostalgia gets the better of me, especially when it comes to anime. I reviewed some newer anime when I was writing for DVD Verdict and discovered that most of it was just OK. There were a few shows that were better than others, but nothing really exceptional. That is the main reason I'm sticking to the classics I know and love for this blog. But anime marches on and so does the J-pop used for the opening and closing credits. 

I figured, for once I'll feature a song from a recent anime that I actually enjoyed, RideBack, made in 2009 (OK, not too recent). The J-pop opening credits by Mell feature the typical digi-voiced gal singing with some serious techo backbeats, you know, kinda like modern pop. It is a catchy tune. But with all the voice manipulation I didn't realize until almost two years after seeing it, that all the lyrics are in ENGLISH! Seriously, she's singing in English. They lyrics even tie to the show. Crazy, I tell ya, just plain crazy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Top Ten – Favorite Film Scores of the 1980s

It is safe to say that my enjoyment of film scores started in the 1980s, when I picked up cassette tapes (remember those?) of the scores to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a large part of my score collection contains music from this decade. I had a few readers ask me for top ten lists involving scores, and I was always at a lose on how to proceed. A top ten list of favorite scores vs. a top ten list of historically important scores vs top ten list of best scores by a composer… you see the problem.

For this one I just stuck with personal favorites of mine from films made in the 1980s. These are not my favorite films of the decade. But they are the top ten most listened to film scores. I did rank them, but this ranking is due to change at any moment, because – dammit they are all so good.

And yes, I love adventures scores, so you may notice a bias toward those types of albums. Fans of romantic comedies, sports films and dramas may be disappointed.

10. Kiki’s Delivery Service composed by Joe Hisaishi
So I start off the one score that isn’t an adventure score. But this happens to be one of my favorite animated films by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki. Because of that, this score is one I can listen to at almost any time. It is light, bubbly and filled with a kind of European flair that you don’t hear in much of Hisaishi’s work. It has lots of fun little moments that are captured musically. It also features music symbolizing the joy of flying (a soaring waltz-like style that Hisaishi would use in the later film Howl’s Moving Castle), as well as moments of quiet contemplation. It’s just a well-rounded CD presentation, and perfect listening for a lazy Sunday or just to take you back to the world of the film.

9. Tron composed by Wendy Carlos
From sweet and soothing to harsh and electronic. The score to Tron fits the film like a glowing power glove, and is certainly not something that everyone will enjoy. Carlos took actual arcade style music fused it with dissonant orchestral techniques and created something very new and unique for the film. It has themes and motifs, and some of them are excellent. The early 80s digital synth effects just create a whole new audio world, one rooted in Atari and arcades. Whenever I mention this is one of my favorite scores of the decade, I get odd looks, but I stick by it. Nothing like Tron has been created since, and it is still a lot of fun to listen to.

8. Batman composed by Danny Elfman
These days people think superhero music, and they think Hans Zimmer thanks to his work on the Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel. But before that, people thought of Danny Elfman. His score for Batman is one of the most iconic superheroes scores around, and one that influenced countless imitators. Gothic, powerful and a little quirky, the score captures the nature of the caped crusader and Tim Burton’s vision of that hero in every detail. Batman’s theme swoops, dives and enshrouds the listener. The action music can be frantic, but crates an elegant chaos that is always overwhelmed by Batman’s theme. I still think this work tops Zimmers in nearly every way (from a stand along listen), and every time I return to it, I’m surprised by how dynamic it is.

7. Transformers the Movie composed by Vince DiCola
Oh man, am I gonna get grief for this one. But I can’t help it, I grew up with the Transformers, and this score is part of my childhood. It also the embodiment of the rockin’ 80s soundtracks. You know the stuff: full of synths and wailing electric guitars. Dicola takes those elements and actually creates a score with themes that battle each other, moments of dread and even a touching electronic piece for the death of Optimus Prime. His action set pieces are great stand-alone cues that could come off an electronic artists CD. But he even manages to work in ideas from the supporting songs on the soundtrack like Weird Al’s Dare to Be Stupid and Stan Bush’s Dare. It’s either genius or a marketing tool, but it is all awesome in a purely 80s sense.

6. Young Sherlock Holmes composed by Bruce Broughton
One of the huge influences on the decade in film music was John Williams. Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes takes the Williams template for adventure and fantasy scoring and simply nails it. Broughton keeps a lot of his own stylistic touch in the score, specifically the action queues which are very busy and frantic.  This score has everything you want in a top-notch adventure score. It’s got a great two-part theme for the heroes, a wonderful love theme, a sinister choral chant for the evil cult and a myriad of supporting themes. The action music is energetic, the horror moments are suspenseful and the end credits suite is one of my favorite from this decade.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan composed by James Horner
It was tough to pick just one score from Mr. Horner from the 1980s. He created so many wonderful albums in that decade. It ended up being between this score and his work on Krull. But I think as a complete listen, his score for Wrath of Khan is the best. He creates a wonderful nautical theme for the Enterprise and her crew. For a lot of folks, that theme is one of the best of the entire franchise. Horner also wrote a unique sound for Spock, one that inspired future composers Eidelman and Giacchino for their takes on Vulcan themes. Then there is Khan’s motif that brazenly explodes whenever the villain unleashes. Like all of Horner’s scores, it is filled with powerful emotions and big sound. The final tracks are some of the best of the entire franchise.

4. Explorers composed by Jerry Goldsmith
It was very difficult to pick a favorite Goldsmith score too. He created so many scores in all kinds of films, that picking just one was nearly impossible. But it all boiled down to the score that I listened to the most. That has to be his work on Dante’s family adventure film Explorers. There are about six different themes at work in this score, but the best is “the construction” theme, which serves as the heroic adventure theme for most of the score. I love how hints of the theme appear early in the work as the boys start thinking about the possibilities of space travel. Then you get a fully developed version as they build the machine, and then a wonderful exploration version of the theme (and the supporting “dreamer” theme) as they take it for a first flight. That is just one theme! The rest are all treated and manipulated in various ways, telling the story musically and with a lot of energy and warmth. It just makes me smile each time I listen to it, and it captures that feeling of adventure so well. A perfect fit for a score titled Explorers.

3. Conan the Barbarian composed by Basil Poledouris
This wonderful juggernaut of a score is one that I can always listen to from font to back and never once consider skipping a track. It is that good. Poledouris combines medieval rhythms and melodies to create a primeval feel to the score. Most films took a more classical or romantic approach and this allows the Conan score to stand alone, and yet sound so perfect for it’s film. The wonderful use of choir in tracks like Riders of Doom adds amazing power to those scenes. The love theme is sweeping and adds another layer to the propulsive music. It is one of the rare scores, like Tron, that creates a sonic representation of the visual world of the film. You hear this score and you are taken back to the age of Conan.

2. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom composed by John Williams
This one was nearly impossible, but I had to pick just one score from the Indiana Jones series, and in the end Temple of Doom won. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, but when it comes down to it, Temple of Doom is just a hair more fun to listen to. Williams takes the style and themes he created in the first film and builds on them. But he adds whole new thematic colors to the score and they are doozies. A new gal in Indy’s life gets a new love theme. The sidekick gets a theme. But the supporting themes are too many to count. You get some slick action music erupting in key tracks like Slave Children’s’ Crusade and The Mine Car Chase (which had to have killed some of the orchestra with the speed of those notes). The Temple of Doom chant is the dark blood red cherry on top, adding a huge dose of horror to the whole thing. It is a blast from start to finish, with the Raiders March wrapping the whole thing up. Only one score could possibly top it.

1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back composed by John Williams
It was the 1980s and John Williams was king of the film score world. But this is certainly one of his masterpieces. His approach to the first Star Wars sequel is similar to his approach on the first Indiana Jones sequel: take the familiar themes and build on them. He ended up creating two amazing themes for this film: the Imperial March and Yoda’s Theme. Both of these themes are driving forces pushing the score into new story directions. The Imperial March is nearly omnipresent, opening and closing scenes, battering the rebels at each turn, and overwhelming Luke’s theme several times. Yoda’s theme works wonderfully during the scenes on Dagobah, often subtly guiding the film. Other times the theme steps forward and takes over: such as in the scene where Yoda raises the X-wing from the swamp. It is even turned into an amazing battle theme as Luke uses Yoda’s teachings to battle Vader. Han and Leia get a sweet love theme that is turned into a dirge when Han is frozen and then into a hopeful beacon as the film swoops into an amazing tour de force end credits suite. All that and again, Williams creates a myriad of lesser themes and motifs that drive the action, with one of his best chase pieces The Asteroid Field taking the cake. It is an amazing score, one of the few that actually tops its predecessor. If you had any doubt that John Williams was a Maestro of film scores, one listen to the complete version of The Empire Strikes Back should convince you to call him Master.


Here is a set of other scores that made into consideration. I could write more about each of them, but this post is long enough. Here they are in alphabetical order. Expect to hear more about them in future blogs.
  • Amadeus
  • Back to the Future
  • Bladerunner
  • Castle in the Sky
  • The Dark Crystal
  • E.T.
  • The Final Conflict: The Omen III
  • Flash Gordon
  • Ghostbusters
  • Glory
  • Gremlins
  • Heavy Metal
  • Hellbound: Hellraiser II
  • Hellraiser
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Karate Kid II
  • Krull
  • The Living Daylights
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
  • Poltergeist
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Silverado
  • Star Trek III
  • Star Trek V
  • Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
  • Willow