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Monthly Archives: April 2010

I love all the works of Hayao Miyazaki, so I fully expected Ponyo to amaze me. Maybe I should have kept my expectations slightly lower. Ponyo is very good but very good where I expected spectacular.

Ponyo is one of Miyazaki’s environmental message movies, and I personally find his style at message films a little heavy handed. I felt the same way about Naussica Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. It’s not that I dislike them or feel they are in any way poor films, I just think Miyazaki lays the message on a little thick. And I felt that with Ponyo.

I normally find the Miyazaki designed creatures fascinating (No Face of Spirited Away) or adorable (everything in My Neighbor Totoro), but much less so in this film. The Ponyo character when a little girl is cute, but the fish-with-a-human-face and the mid-change-with-chicken-legs are just disturbing. Her Willy Wonka-like father looked pretty creepy most of the time, too, but also dangerously treading ridiculous. The only really interesting newly designed creatures were the moving, sentient water drops, black with a single eye.

The plot took some incomprehensible turns as well, including the fate of the planet apparently resting on the ability of a five year old boy to make a solid decision. I don’t care how mature he is for his age, if that’s ever the case this world is doomed. This plot point comes across as really forced.

Outside of having unreasonable expectations applied to them, though, Miyazaki captures children’s behavior as effortlessly as always. The way they play, the importance of it, all works perfectly on screen. Sosuke’s mother gets an unusually detailed amount of character for an adult in a Miyazaki film, which is a nice change of pace. The elderly home setting provides some new voices from which he can deliver additional perspectives in the film.

The animation is very well done, as one expects from Studio Ghibli. I would like to have seen more of an undersea setting than the room in which Ponyo’s father attempts to lock her away. The random scenes with the multicolored fish are gorgeous, so it feels like the landlocked scenes are pretty drab until the end.

There are some weaknesses in story and character but Ponyo is still a good film. I think children will find more in it than adults, which is a shame given how incredible Miyakazi’s works can be for both. 3 ½ stars

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The Hess’s films just seem unable to commit to deeper than surface details. In Gentlemen Broncos, though, they get those dead right. Like all their films to date their credits sequence is perfectly brilliant. Using paperback dime novels looks great and sets the proper tone for the film. The art direction of the film keeps the tenor throughout as well, with everything giving off a second hand vibe. The whole movie looks like it could have been found in a used bookstore. It looks musty, if that’s even possible.

The characters certainly needed some more of this kind of attention to detail. I never really felt like I knew any of them in the end, never had a clear sense of what they wanted or were trying to accomplish. Benjamin, the lead protagonist is just sort of any kid who writes genre fiction. The biggest failure of his character is the lack of vocabulary in his writing. Words like “crap” pop up all too frequently in a cheap attempt at humor. Writers, especially writers trying to give genre fiction respectability, don’t use that kind of phrasing when they have eight syllable words in their pockets. The villain, Ronald Chevalier, pulls the shtick off much better. His washed up hack, all bluff and affectation, works as a foil for the naïve and unaffected Benjamin. I like Jennifer Coolidge in her role as Benjamin’s mother, though her character is given far too much screen time.

That’s representative of another of the film’s problems; too many side plots are started for a 90 minute film. Too much time is devoted to Coolidge’s burgeoning gown designer career, then Benjamin’s story is terribly filmed by fellow-fantasy writer’s camp goers Lonnie and Tabatha, AND the film intersperses moments from Benjamin’s book featuring Sam Rockwell as the titular Bronco. While a few of these serve the story, it features far too many for its own benefit. Too many threads dangle in the end and too few tie up satisfactorily.

I mentioned a cheap attempt at humor already but some of the scatological stabs in the film are far too juvenile. A scene revolving around a first kiss and vomit is positively revolting. It turned my stomach. It’s a scene you might expect from John Waters but never did I imagine it playing in a Jared Hess movie. A cannon extends from a reindeer’s backside in another move that succeeds only in dragging the film down. It’s not even funny when it happens.

A number of scenes feel like they were written assuming that they would be funny without ever postulating as to why. I got the sense that the writers decided to point a camera at something, in this case genre writers of little fame, with the assumption that it would just be funny, without thinking about why it would be. And they are half right in their deduction. There are tons of jokes to be made about their subject. They just didn’t make any of them. They got the surface correct but never looked into the heart of their topic. I never felt any love of sci-fi/fantasy books from the creators and that makes a huge difference in the film’s quality. You can pick apart a thing you don’t love but you can’t show really why it’s funny without some deeper affection for it. And that heart is what’s chiefly missing from Gentlemen Broncos. 2 stars

I picked up The New Adventures of He-Man: Vol. 1 on a lark, just got the first disc to see what kind of transition the animations studio came up with to move He-Man from a weird little fantasy universe to a futuristic one. The answer is the worst transition conceivable. Everything about this cartoon is cheap, dull and sad. The animation is bad, the character designs are bad and it combines the worst elements of the original cartoons with the worst elements you could rip off from Thundercats and Voltron.

He-Man and Skeletor get basically picked up from their own world and transported to a new one by visitors from the future. Given how they look, sound and act virtually nothing like the original characters, though, there was no good reason not to just start fresh with them already living there. He-Man gets 90s-ed up with his new ponytail, trading in his furry shorts for blue tights and a lack of understanding of human anatomy. His new sword has an impossible-to-grip pommel, so it just sits on top of his fist. All he lacked was pouches, a big gun and crosshatching and to be perfectly representative of the era.

But worse than the new look is what they kept. He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam, kept that a secret to protect his friends and family from attack. Here on New Whatever, he has no friends or family but he chooses a secret identity again for no good reason. I suppose the transformation is a large part of the characters’ identity but even that was toned down for this show. There isn’t even a Grayskull from which to draw the POOOOOWWWWAAAA. Another thing toned down, and one of the only good things about He-Man, is the smack talk he throws out while besting goons. The only thing I ever really liked about the character was how he would beat up Beast-Man and Mer-Man while basically laughing at them and telling them how easy it was. That’s the epitome of awesome, as would later be proved by the Rock.

In an instance of things they not only kept but in fact made worse, the palace has four bumbling sort of technological wizards on staff, creating gizmos in their bumbling manner. If there’s anything worse than Orko, it’s FOUR ORKOS. These characters get worse every time they waste screen time, too. Right now you’re probably thinking, At least they didn’t add a little kid character. Wishful thinking, because they did just that, too. Yes, in this update they added extra comic relief and a fucking kid.

The other new characters are a combination of being grossly dull while also looking like shit. Say what you will about Stratos or Tri-Klops but you could pick them out of a lineup. The two nimrods who pick He-Man up from Eternia are clearly “Flying Guy” and “Water Guy,” who look like they were drawn directly from their shitty action figure packaging. W.G. even wears a glass dome helmet. ON LAND. All the time. The cartoon was produced by “ParaFrance,“ and if you’ve ever see an episode of the inexplicably bizarre Highlander cartoon series you’ve seen a sample of the true shittiness of French-produced cartoon series.

Their nemeses, the Mutants, mostly look and act like they never made the callback for crew on Prince Lotor’s ship. A guy that couldn’t even make a single Ro-Beast that didn’t get the utter shit kicked out of it after hundreds of attempts would still have seen this crew as D-grade. They are taken over by the subtle machinations of Skeletor with relative ease, and his previous experience at subtlety was to lay out every step of his plan for everyone to hear in a five mile radius at the top of his shrieking voice. Now I really need to talk about that happened to Skeletor.

The very worst part of this abomination is how Skeletor changed. Gone is the yellowed skull-for-a-face with the empty eye sockets. In its place is some sort of metallic, skeletal mask and fucking eyeballs, and big goony ones at that. So, right away he looks nothing like the original character. His cackling voice is also done in as he now has a monotonous, dreary voice, in which he applies understated attempts at manipulating the other characters. Which sounds on paper like an admiral attempt at writing a good character, until you remember the fact that the best thing about Skeletor was his constant shouting, insulting his henchman and threatening everyone in sight all the time. He never whispered when he could scream, never used a nail when driving in a railroad spike was an overblown option. In other words, he was hilarious. His revamped character is just sort of sleazy and creepy, insinuating himself where he doesn’t really belong, and acting like the evil Mutants’ controlling boyfriend.

So, now I understand how this cartoon came to be so reviled among fans of the original, itself hardly a masterpiece of craft. But it had style and memorable characters which made an impact on impressionable youth. This garbage just slides past the eye, leaving an ugly stain at best. 1 star

In a recent development that I learned of on the AV Club, http://www.avclub.com/articles/next-james-bond-film-delayed-indefinitely,40275/ (into which I did exactly no further research) the latest James Bond film will be delayed indefinitely. Given the lackluster nature of the franchise since its reboot as an action series first, last and always, I can’t say that I’m terribly distressed about this development. The first in the relaunch, the updated-for-the-2000s Casino Royale was entertaining in its opening and had potential to be better than it was. Where it failed was featuring 60 minutes of the most bandwagon jumping pandering since the blaxpoilation of Live and Let Die, the Texas Hold ‘Em game. Yes, poker was all the rage that year. So what? Does that make it worthy of the world’s foremost superspy and the villain he is called upon to thwart? The series has been guilty of bandwagon jumpery since before the kung fu school of The Man With the Golden Gun and the chicken-fried comedy of Sheriff J. W. Pepper in both previously mentioned films, but it doesn’t help you in the first film of your continuity reboot to do this. The sheer amount of time devoted to showing this game being played ground the film to a near halt, too, besides the fact that the game sheared a good deal of the glamour from the character. I just never could see Bond, James Bond as a poker player.

The action of the series has taken a definite trip too much to the forefront. The opening chase in Casino Royale helped define the character through his actions, in that when faced with an athletically superior opponent and having no hope of catching him Bond will throw his body on the line to achieve his goal. He took some harsh falls in that, sacrificing himself out of dedication to his job. That’s what made that scene work for me. Then later he got down to some spy work, which is exactly what Quantum of Solace forgot to put into the movie. I don’t recall Bond doing any spying at all. The movie to me was a chase scene, followed by a gun battle, which led to knife fight that ultimately broke down into a punch up, where Bond was the last man standing. He was much more John Matrix than James Bond in it. Just as I didn’t care for Batman venturing into Bond territory in the international kidnapping scene from The Dark Knight, I had no interest in Bond as a straight up action hero, killing everyone in his path. While the series did desperately need a revision of its methodology and a jettison of the blatant cheesiness it had become known for, scrapping the core concept is going too far. At this rate my best guess for the next Bond film, given that it must a) jump a popular bandwagon and b) add needless violence to a character whom is supposed to be engaging in subtlety, is that Bond goes undercover in the world of MMA, fighting a tournament until he reaches a match with the super villain arms dealer and Brazilian jiu-jitsu master in the final round. So, yeah, delay away on that.

Samurai Cop is one of the most gloriously terrible films I have ever witnessed. The movie is a cheese lover’s Holy Grail, Fountain of Youth and Lost City of Gold all in the same sweet spot. A lost Italian production, (a commentary track by Joe Bob Briggs provides a fascinating amount of trivia about the film, and is just as hilarious and entertaining as the movie itself) the movie looks made to cash in on the post-Lethal Weapon buddy cop craze, given its production date of 1991. I suppose the producer’s were looking for a quick-buck, straight-to-VHS release, as the biggest star in the film is Robert Z’Dar, known pretty much for portraying the titular character of several Maniac Cop films. That and having an enormous face. The DVD art for the copy I have actually much more recalls that film than the one for which it was created. It features a uniformed cop (never seen in Samurai Cop) drawing a katana (rarely seen in Samurai Cop) in the shadows (also never seen in Samurai Cop). Save for the sword, the poster is Maniac Cop all over again.

Joe, the titular Samurai Cop, has the rare and coveted two-career fail, as he rarely does anything either samurai-like or cop-like. He spends more time hitting on women than anything else onscreen, and presumably all off-camera time goes toward maintaining his perfect mane of hair. In one such scene, possibly the most bafflingly scripted of its kind, the infamous “Horny Nurse” scene made popular on YouTube, Joe hits on the aforementioned horny nurse. What makes the scene so special is that it actually breaks the comic-relief-in-a-bad-movie rule, which says that the intentional comedy is the only thing in it that isn‘t funny. The scene is clearly played for laughs, and badly, but so badly that it actually comes around and becomes funny again. I think this is the first and only film to actually break this rule.

Matt Hannon plays Joe, in his only film credit. With comic timing and dramatic flair like his it isn’t hard to see why. Joe’s detective work is as suspect if not more so, than his sexual bantering talent. His plan to catch crooks is a) show up late to the drug bust, b) kill most of the participants, c) threaten their boss publicly, and d) kill more of them when they retaliate, which for reasons of chiefly bullshit samurai code, they will. He also refuses to call for any backup, ever, which makes sense for a guy with a Samurai Detective shield. You don’t get those for feathering your hair or poor innuendo skills. You get them for chopping up perps.

His partner, Frank, while little better at policing, does at least carry handcuffs and occasionally attempt to apprehend a suspect. And doesn’t go in for all that samurai mumbo jumbo either. Which saves Joe’s life at least twice when his counterparts stop taking their own codes quite so seriously. Also, Frank has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, apparently, so he knows the most expedient way to deal with a sword wielding goon. Frank is also an invaluable companion when striking out with horny nurses, as evidenced by his classic reaction shot cut-ins. His laugh makes Barney Rubble’s seem natural in comparison and his jokes about burning his ass are cutting edge 1974 material. Still, Frank looks pretty cool when held up next to his partner.

The script is utterly devoid of logic. No one does anything that makes a lick of sense. The film degenerates into a series of fight scenes rather quickly and there’s a long, long section of the movie where the bad guys chase after the address of the Samurai Cop. Among their tactics are two low-level goons breaking into Frank’s place while he showers in his Speedos and threatening to remove his “gift,” his “black gift” if he refuses to reveal the secret location of the Fortress of Slutitude. If I’ve ever heard a guy quite so baldly say he was afraid of another man’s penile stature, it was this guy. Nice poker face, Racist Goon. Frank kills them both and preserves his black gift. Naturally the bad guys keep their big guns for the main target, helicopter pilot and backup bedmate of Joe, Peggy, played by Melissa Moore. Robert Z’Dar makes a personal appearance in her interrogation, which is good since she kicks the asses of his goons without a second thought. And, without warning, the previously goofy-to-the-nth-degree nature of this movie takes a nasty turn. The bad men interrupted her cooking a pan of grease for dinner and proceed to torture her merciless by pouring burning fat on her until she reveals the address of the Samurai Lair. She is never heard from or shown any concern again in the film.

Joe, meanwhile, has been enacting one of the movie’s half dozen or so Skinemax level sex scenes. It’s worth noting that while two or three of these feature Joe, who looks like he would be at home in the videos Wally the Gay Dad watches in Brain Candy, another two feature Z’Dar and 50 year old martial arts film stalwart Gerald Okamura. These are not love scene material gentlemen, to put it mildly. And yet Frank is never given the opportunity to test out his black gift. More’s the pity.

The costumes are worth noting, too. Frank gets his detective gear basically right with a blazer and oxford shirt, but Joe never wears anything but jeans, unless he’s seen in his banana hammock on the beach or in bed. And the security guard watching the burn victim wears what are vaguely matching trousers and a shirt, not really close to a uniform, and a gun belt. Not one with places for additional police equipment, just a gun belt.

Samurai Cop is one of those films that holds a special rating. It’s definitely a one star affair, and that’s what I give it, but it’s beyond five stars in entertainment value. It ranks with Troll 2 and House of the Dead in terms of rising above it’s awfulness. 1 star

For whatever reason this is a story that has been revisited a number of times in the past ten years, a suspiciously high number of times. It has been seen in Justice League Unlimited in the form of the Justice Lords storyline, Mark Millar’s comic series Wanted (from which this movie borrows liberally), and last year in Batman: the Brave and the Bold, featuring some of the same characters. Basically it’s a mirror universe story where evil has triumphed over good. In Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths the filmmakers return to an old DC Comics story featuring the Crime Syndicate (a name unfortunately kept for the movie) from an alternate Earth. From what I remember this amounted to the world being terrorized by evil doppelgangers of the Justice League. For the most part it wasn’t really all that imaginative, best exampled by Evil Green Lantern, Power Ring. Yeah, why not call Evil Batman “Utility Belt” or Evil Wonder Woman “Magic Lasso” while you’re throwing out generic names.

I was pleasantly surprised at how detailed and character driven much of the film turned out to be, though. Though many of the Crime Syndicate characters get very little time to be fleshed out, the ones that do are interesting. Owlman is, I believe for the first time, more than simply Evil Batman. He has a completely different personality and outlook and this drives most of the drama in the final act. He is much more philosophical and introspective than Batman, while being wholly amoral as well. The movie actually looks at the moniker “Owlman” and dissects what it would mean to someone who chose it. Picking up a Justice League Unlimited storyline, Wonder Woman stand-in Superwoman is Owlman’s lover. She also gets a well done and more mature treatment as a sexually charged hedonist, easily bored by Owlman’s planning and only looking for a thrill. Superman double Ultraman has a sort of stereotypical Italian mobster appearance and attitude, with his square-headed coif and permanent sneer. There are many others but for the most part it’s these three that get actual character treatment. Flash ringer Johnny Quick’s character difference amounts to being British.

If you are a comics fan you will probably have a blast picking out the doppelgangers throughout the battles on Crime Syndicate Earth. The scene featuring a group of alternate Outsiders and Detroit-era Justice Leaguers is particularly fun. Random appearances of henchman like Lobo as possibly a Blue Oyster Bar biker don’t hurt either. My personal favorites were the black-clad “Supers,” a Marvel family stand-in. Best appearance in the whole film: Uncle Super. I would love to have seen more of the Justice League of that world. Alternate Lex Luthor (oddly the same, not even so much as having hair) is the last man standing, his final partner, The Jester, falling in the opener. Slade “Deathstroke” Wilson is the President, and his daughter Rose works by his side. They fill in a sort of national level Commissioner and Barbara Gordon role. All of this was cool but a few shots of the demise of good versions of the Legion of Doom would have been welcome.

Some of the voice casting I found problematic. Chris Noth makes a great Luthor, and Gina Torres’ Superwoman is perfect, but Mark Harmon’s gruff, authoritative Superman lacks the humble farm boy charm of Tim Daly’s work, and there is no improving on Kevin Conroy’s Batman. James Woods makes a perfectly detached Owlman, though. The rest of the cast is good, too, and even features a couple of appearances by Reno 911’s Officer Jones, Cedric Yarborough.

I was skeptical in the opening of JL: CoTE but it won me over shortly, largely through the portrayals of Owlman and Superwoman, and the dynamic of their relationship. This was one of the more enjoyable DC Animations released in the last few years. Recommended for Justice League fans mostly, maybe not such a great kids movie, though. 4 stars

I heard a lot about the atmosphere of The House of the Devil going into viewing it, how it captures the feel of a 1980s horror film. And it does do so quite well. After seeing it, though, I’m unsure of loftiness of this goal.

College student Samantha, sick of her dorm roommate locking her out while she has sex with whoever, takes a new off campus apartment that she cannot really afford. She calls for a babysitting job to a mysterious man (the underappreciated Tom Noonan, Frankenstein of Monster Squad among others) who stands her up. He eventually does convince her to journey out to his country estate under a somewhat false premise. All of this takes a good 45 minutes before any of the action kicks in, and when it finally does it’s one brutal, sudden and shocking moment. The build up to this is very good, creepy and subtle.

Once Samantha is in the house, the third act goes a little awry. It begins with a lot of padding, such as Samantha dancing around the house to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another,” which mostly serves to remind that this is set in the 80s, with her giant Walkman and padded headphones. She finds some clues as to what’s happening but it all feels pretty clumsy. She walks the house for a long time before the climax begins, and it kicks into overdrive immediately. Samantha inexplicably goes from weak girl to ass kicking machine in a span of seconds, even less believably than was the standard for 1980s action. The final reveal, while somewhat cliché, works well for the story.

The acting is fair to very good in House. Tom Noonan has easily the best character and performance of the film. Mary Woronov is sadly limited in her appearance. Jocelin Donahue holds her own as Samantha, believably portraying a college student plowing ahead with what appears to be a bad idea all around.

I agree that the atmosphere of the 1980s Satanic-cult-behind-every-door mentality was captured perfectly by director Ti West. He nails the little touches, like chunky remote controls and big-haired newscasters. What I’m not sure of is why he’s done this. The story is all rehash. Nothing new is ever touched upon. There’s a plot revolving around a lunar eclipse that only sort of comes into play, and an inexplicably introduced character at the very end that’s never talked about. The climax is rushed and just gotten out of the way, it seems. In the end, House is a very well made but utterly unnecessary revisit to a dear era of horror films. 3 ½ stars