Monday, June 25, 2012

American Splendor (2003)

Title: American Splendor (2003) 

Directors: Shari Springer, Robert Pulcini 

Actors: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner


Ever get that feeling that a particular film was made especially for you? I've had this sort of thing happen to me before, where I'm watching a film and I end up asking myself, "wait, do these people freaking know me?" For example while watching Francis Ford Coppola's TETRO (2009), I couldn't help being  identified with the main characters artistic frustrations and struggles. The same thing happened to me with American Splendor, but on an even more personal level. You see, American Splendor tells the tale of real life comic book writer Harvey Pekar, he is primarily known for writing American Splendor, a comic book which was printed in one form or another from 1976 to 2008. Through its various publishers, the comic lasted for 39 issues; the last one was printed by Vertigo Comics in 2008. The difference between regular superhero comics and Harvey Pekar's stuff is that Pekar's comics were based  on his own life and sometimes on the life of his own friends and co-workers. You were not going to see superheroes in underwear fighting super villains here, nope, on American Splendor you'd find everyday Joe's and the situations they'd confront in real life; which is really what attracts me to them. It's a change of attitude, these comics speak about the unfiltered frustrations of the working class, and comment in a brutally honest way on the way the world is; that's what set Pekar's comics apart. 

But once upon a time, Mr. Pekar was not making a living as a comic book artist. He was simply a file clerk in a hospital; not the most glamorous of jobs, but hey, at least he had a job! Working all those years with a meager salary is what fueled Pekar's creativity. He never had much money, so his relationships would never last. For the longest time, it felt like Harvey's life was simply going nowhere. Dead End Job, shitty apartment, no lady in his life, and to top things off, he'd get cancer along the way. Things were grim for Harvey Pekar. But good things come to those who wait, and so one fine day Harvey met underground comics god Robert Crumb and boom, Harvey gets inspired to do his own comic book. Crumb's and Harvey's life stories are entwined because for a while, they both lived in the same neighborhood and they booth shared a huge amount of love for comic books and old jazz records. They became good friends and inspired each other. For Crumb's half of the story you should check out this amazing documentary produced by David Lynch called Crumb (1994), it's a very interesting look into Crumb's strange and unusual upbringing and life style. Want to see weird? Check out this documentary. But aside from weird, it's also strangely inspiring, Crumb never tires from drawing his own particular brand of Americana. Crumb's story was a bit different than Harvey's because Crumb became successful a lot quicker than Harvey, whose success came with much more of an effort, and much later in life; yes my friends, Pekar was the quintessential late bloomer.  

The Real Harvey Pekar, a real 'Gloom and Doom' type of guy

American Splendor the film, is the story of the working class hero. The guy who works at a low paying job and has to struggle to survive; which is exactly what Harvey was in real life. Scraping by to survive is the way a lot of people live, and so, a lot of people can identify with this story. Often times, misery, pain and struggle gives birth to wonderful works of art. Truth is, the best art comes from just that: pain. You got nowhere left to go but to express yourself. I identify with this story because I am a working stiff myself, a blue collar worker so to speak. I got no troubles in admitting it: hey, I aint rich but at least I make an honest living. And here's another piece of my story you guys probably don't know but I illustrate my own comics, my work has yet to be published on a professional level. I write my own stuff. And same as Crumb, I don't do my comics for no one, I consider them "an exercise" that just might end up getting printed at some point in my life. I've yet to draw my masterpiece, but I'm working on it. Surely enough, it will get made, but in the mean time, a mans gotta survive, so I keep my 9 to 5 job. But inside? I'm really an artist and proud of it. Crumb is one of my own personal heroes, I love the guys artwork, his style is one I greatly admire. And I love Pekar's stuff because it's about everyday life, the struggle to survive. This theme is something I also express through my films. The one I'm currently working on (and will FINISH soon!) is about a cook who looses his job and has an identity crisis. So yeah, both of these great artists have influenced me immensely. Watching American Splendor the other night got me all fired up to continue with my art! 

Paul Giamatti portrays Harvey Pekar

American Splendor, the film, was at one time attempted by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) only he had trouble getting it made because he wasnt an established filmmaker yet. It was the creative duo of Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini who would end up getting financial back to make  the film, which as it turns out is half film, half documentary. I think it was brilliant that the film ended up being like this because Pekar's comics are metafiction; so it's only natural that the film ended up being metafilm as well. This is a film that references itself as a work of art, and exposes some truths about life and the nature of filmmaking and comic book illustration. It's wonderfully different. At times we will see Paul Giamatti portraying Harvey...and suddenly in steps the real Harvey, talking about his own life, or we'll simply see Harvey, as his own real life unfolds in front of the movie cameras. The film makes no efforts to hide the ugly parts of the story. These are things that any normal Hollywood film would make an effort to eliminate or shy away from, or change; but not Harvey Pekar's story. You see, Harvey was always about exposing truths. Telling it like it is. Now this is something that some people just can't take. You ever had a conversation with someone, and they simply can't take how real the conversation gets? The kind of conversation where people choose to walk away from because they just can't take reality? I know I've had my share of those, I find it hilarious how people react to the truth. And Harvey is one of these guys. He simply spits out 'gloom and doom' and he has no problems with admitting that this is the kind of guy that he is, he doesn't sell commercial phoniness, no siree, Harvey is all about how hard it is to live, the ugly truth of things. His attitude is, if you can't take the heat, then get out of that kitchen. 

Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis both do an excellent job of bringing Harvey and Joyce's story to life. Giamatti was the perfect guy to bring Pekar to life, both actors received various awards for their portrayals. The film itself went on to win many awards for best screenplay. Pekar himself comes off as a guy who realizes he want's to leave something behind after he dies. He never really liked the idea of having kids, so his legacy was going to be his work, his stories. And fairly enough, he kept following his dream until they even made a film about his life! Now there's an underdog story if there ever was one! Harvey kept on struggling until he finally made it! Sadly, he passed away in 2010, but he left behind wonderful insights about real life, real struggles in his comics; inspirational stuff in deed. In Harvey's own words the theme of American Splendor was "staying alive, getting a job, finding a mate, having a place to live, finding a creative outlet. Life is a war of attrition, you have to stay active on all fronts. It's one thing after another. I've tried to control a chaotic universe, and it's a loosing battle. I've tried to let go. But I can't" Words of wisdom and inspiration my friends, words of wisdom. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 

Harvey Pekar 1939-2010

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Title: The Dark Crystal (1982)

Directors: Jim Henson and Frank Oz


Fantasy films of the 80's how I love thee, let me count the ways. The Dark Crystal, a fantasy film written and directed by the creative duo of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, is a very special movie for me and not just for me, but for many fantasy lovers out there as well.  Along with Willow (1988), Legend (1985) and Labyrinth (1986), The Dark Crystal was one of those fantasy films I grew up with. I consider myself lucky to have grown up with these fantastic fantasy films; everytime I re-watch any of these films I get the feeling that "they just don't make them like that anymore" And to tell you the truth, in retrospect, the 80's produced some of the best fantasy films out there, films that are still remembered and cherished to this day. They had that that magical feeling you get when everything just clicks to perfection, the music, the art direction, the story. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the folks involved in making the film: Jim Henson and Frank Oz, two true lovers of fantasy. Technically speaking, whenever Jim Henson decided to make a fantasy film, you could bet your sweet ass he was going to give it his best;  the guy truly knew what he was doing. If you don't believe me, just watch Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal back to back, you'll get the sense that these films were not easy films to make, that they took more of an effort to make than your regular picture. You see, Henson didn't just want to make any old movie. Oh no, he loved making films entirely populated by puppets, this was something that he would continue doing through the years in whatever medium possible. Cable specials, various television shows and films. But his first attempt at it was with The Dark Crystal, a film that was being hailed as the first live action motion picture with absolutely no humans on screen. This alone makes The Dark Crystal worth a watch, but honestly, once you've visited the world of The Dark Crystal you'll no doubt want to revisit it again and again, its a really wonderful world to go back to; so complex, so detailed, my hats down to Jim Henson, a truly talent was lost the day he died.

Jim Henson, filming Labyrinth

But what makes a good fantasy film? In my opinion, it has to effectively whisk me away to another land, another place, another time, and it has to make me believe it; and in the end, good has to triumph over evil. I've often cited Ridley Scott's Legend as a good example of the perfect fantasy film. It has unicorns, elves, demons, fairies, gnomes and witches, but the way the film was made makes you feel like the world of Legend exists. With fantasy films like the ones I've mentioned, you'll never feel like you are watching actors act in front of a green screen; which I feel is the problem with many fantasy films of today. They've gone and replaced creating a world through the use of sets, miniatures and props with creating a world in a computer. True, when CGI is done right it can work, but that is a rare occasion in Hollywood. Truth is, the differences between CGI overload and films that used practical on camera effects are palpable when you watch the final product. For example, I am a lover of fantasy films, but I was totally disconnected from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010). Why? Because it just didnt feel real to me. I applaud directors who still actively believe in practical effects, guys like Ridley Scott, who recently demonstrated the perfect balance between practical and computer generated effects with Prometheus (2012). Another director that knows how to balance the two is Guillermo del Toro, for a good example of this check out Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). The problem is that with most fantasy films of today, you can't help but get that feeling that only the actors are real. This is something that never happened with fantasy films before the invention of CGI. Before CGI, filmmakers actually built sets! Go figure! But I guess this is something we have to get used to, apparently, this is the way films are going to be made from now on.  This is one of the reasons why I love The Dark Crystal so much, every nook and cranny of this world was made specifically for this film. You feel the love and the hard work put on this one, the result is so engulfing and absorbing, you can't help but get pulled in.

Don't know if you've noticed, but I tend to pay lots of attention to the people behind the cameras on my reviews, I'm the kind of guy who wants to know who's responsible. I love for example the whole dynamic that goes on between conceptual artists and film directors. That wonderful cynergy that occurs at the very early moments of a production, when the world is just starting to take shape. Case in point, Brian Froud, the conceptual artist responsible for designing both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Froud's a wonderful fantasy artist and one of the best conceptual artists for film; period. He alone is responsible for the entire look of these two amazing films. The puppets look the way they do because Froud drew them that way; reportedly, the designs for The Dark Crystal took five years out of Froud's life, that's how you know this is a truly special film.  I love it when a film brings so many truly creative people together to make something that's going to be amazing and a delight to watch. The people behind The Dark Crystal weren't just anybodies, these were true lovers of fantasy; true artists and performers. These were guys who lived and breathed art; artists who thrive on creation.

Brian Froud's conceptual artwork for The Dark Crystal

But aside from the technical aspects, I love the themes that this film talks about. This film can be categorized as a childrens film, but like many childrens films, this is one that touches upon very adult themes. The world of The Dark Crystal has been divided into two ruling classes, the evil 'Skeksis' and the benevolent and peace loving 'Mystics'. Thousands of years ago, a magical crystal that brought balance to the land was broken, a piece of it, a shard, is missing. Because of this, their world is slowly dying, according to the films opening voice over, the Skeksis are creatures living in a dying land. But fear not, there is a prophecy that a creature known as a 'Gelfling' would unite the crystal once again and make it whole and destroy the evil Skeksis. The young Gelfling know as Jen is the chosen one for this task, and so he goes on a quest to find the missing shard and make the crystal whole again. To me, the whole film is talking about the ever continuing class struggle. The rich and the poor, the ruling class and the working class. The crystal is humanities soul, which has been broken and brought back together, to heal humanity so we can all live in peace. Jen and Kira are the rebellious youth, looking to change things, looking to make things right again They are even willing to sacrifice themselves for this important task. So yeah, this is a childrens film, but one with a lot to say and an interesting message to the newer generations. Like many films before it, The Dark Crystal is asking young people to take matters into their own hands and change things. "You are the chosen one, and you haven't got much time" Jen's Mystic master tells him. 

So yes my friends, The Dark Crystal is a true fantasy classic. The art direction and puppets should keep you glued to the screen, there's so much to absorb on this film. There are these magical moments when Henson and Oz simply focus on the world, and the strange creatures that inhabit it, the strange plants and animal life. You could see a real effort being made to make this world real. The puppets are nothing short of wondrous. My favorite being The Mystics; these huge snail like creatures that move and talk very slowly, but are wise in their ways. Like our elderly, they posses a lot of wisdom if we but listen. I loved how Jen listened to his Mystic master who lay on his dying bed. I also enjoyed how it was a story about loss of a loved one, and having to face the world on your own. At one point Jen says "Im not ready to go out there all alone.."  but then quickly takes control of his life and says "alright...alone then!" and on his way he goes, to fulfill his destiny. This is a beautiful film to show your kids, it will teach them a lot about the importance of change; about how if we don't like the way things are in the world, we don't have to simply sit back and accept things, we can change them, make them better. 

Rating: 5 out of 5

Friday, June 22, 2012

Communion (1989)

Title: Communion (1989)

Director: Philippe Mora 

Cast: Christopher Walken, Lindsay Crouse, Frances Sternhagen


Communion is a film based on a book by Whitley Strieber, supposedly, the book is based on 'real life experiences' about an alien abduction that Strieber suffered from while vacationing with his family in the woods; and so you know how that could be total bullshit, or it could be true. Who the hell knows with these things? One could safely say that Communion is the 'Amityville Horror' of science fiction. Remember that whole thing about The Amityville Horror? How the film was based on a book that detailed the ' real life' supernatural experiences of a family in Long Island? I've done my fair share of explorations on that whole Amityville thing, and to be honest, I came to the conclusion that it was just a get rich quick scheme by all those involved, and to their credit, it worked. The Amityville Horror (1977) scared audiences shitless back in the 70's, I know cause I was a kid. And I was horrified by that film! In this sense, The Amityville Horror, be it true or not, was a win-win situation for all those involved. The book was a best seller, and the film went on to be one of those memorable haunted house films that's still talked about to this day. Hell, it even spawned a remake. Why is Communion similar to The Amityville Horror (1979)?

It's similar, because it has the same kind of story behind it's production. Strieber's book became a #1 New York Times Bestseller, it was labeled a "controversial" book. Same as with the Amityville book, there was this whole "did it really happen or not" vibe to it that fact that the book had the words "a true story" prominently plastered on the covers made it a sensation. Because you all know, saying that a story is based on true events will almost certainly assure a boost in sales on any book. And so, the book became a hit and the inevitable film began production; with the right amount of 'buzz' around it, this film could become a huge hit. The question on everyones mind was if the film would be worth a damn. Well, this Film Connoisseur decided to check Communion out, just to see if all the hoopla was worth it. Personally, I don't give a damn if the stories true or not, I just wanted to see a good alien abduction movie. So, was it a good one? 

Communion tells the tale of Whitley Strieber, a writer, a husband and a family man. One day Whitley decides to take his family and a couple of friends out to the country for some rest and relaxation. Whitley has a cabin out in the woods, the perfect place for a weekend getaway. Whitley has the whole place rigged up with a security system, if anything weird happens these huge lights turn on. So that night, after everyone is settled and partied out, they all go to sleep. Suddenly, in the middle of the night a huge burst of light engulfs the entire house! Whitley wakes from his bed and sees a strange creature in the shadows...but is it real? The next morning Whitley wants to act like it was all just a bad dream he had, but everyone in the house has experienced it; how could it be a dream? 

So basically, this is one of those movies that's more about what happens to the abducted than about the aliens themselves. You know, kind of like Fire in the Sky (1993) where that lumberjack gets abducted by aliens? By the way I'll just save you some time and let you know that Fire in the Sky is a far better film than this one. Fire in the Sky feels as if someone saw Communion and said "let's do this the right way" The problems with Communion for me are many, but at the same time, it had some good things going for it. But first the bad: Philippe Mora is the director of this film, and I don't know if you guys have ever heard of him, but this next couple of words should be enough for the hairs on the back of your head to stand up: he's the director behind Howling II: You're Sister's a Werewolf (1985) and Howling III: The Marsupials (1987). Now, I've never seen Howling II, but if Howling III is any indication of what I can expect, I'm in for a terrible film! That's right folks, for me, Howling III is one of the worst films ever made. Period! I mean, I put it right up there with Troll II (1990) in terms of how bad it is. Let me put it this way, if you want to laugh at how bad a film is, look no further than Howling III! So keeping that in mind, was Communion as horrible as Howling III

The good thing I can say about Communion is that it sustains this wonderful dreamlike state. Sometimes we don't even know if we're dreaming or not. The dream sequences (or flashbacks it all depends on how YOU interpret the film) give this film this strange 'Twilight Zone' feel to it, I liked that about it. The dreamsequences are really the stand out thing about the film, they evoke the strangest sensations, they project the weirdest images and I'm going to go out on a limb here, but some of them are pretty good. Sadly, thats about as good as this film gets. Also, you know how Christopher Walken can get really crazy in some of his performances, to the point where he gets kind of scary? Remember him on King of New York (1990) or The Deer Hunter (1978)? Well, on Communion he goes to fringes of normalcy once again and acts as if he was insane, really insane. This is the kind of performance where you get the feeling that he's on something as he performs.There's this scene where he gets hypnotized, wow, he came off as really crazy there. Reportedly, Whitley Strieber didn't like Walken's portrayal of him, he told Walken that he was portraying him a bit "too crazy". Walken's reply was "if the shoe fits"  implying that Strieber is in fact crazy, so that's the kind of vibe that was floating around this set. I say if you like your Walken like he's one card shy of a full deck, this is the one for you. Some critics have gone on to imply that it was Walkens performance which brought the film down a couple of notches. I say no. Walken has done crazy before with other directors and it's worked, I say it's the direction and style of the film that turned it into a box office bomb. 

Which brings me to the thing I absolutely hated about this film: the alien creatures. There's two types of aliens on this film, we get that traditional skinny, long alien with the elongated black eyes, you know, the traditional alien that some people claim to have seen, and then there's these midget aliens, that wear  monk cloaks and have blue skin. To be honest, they reminded me of the midget creatures from the Phantasm (1979). Now, I love the Phantasm films, but I always thought those midgets from the Phantasm films where kind of funny and at times kind of took me out of the film, sadly, the same thing happens on this film. According to the tone of the film, the aliens should have been frightening, yet they come off as completely laughable. In one scene, Christopher Walken's character himself laughs at the notion of these blue midgets being menacing saying that it's all very ridiculous, which is probably what Walken truly thought about the creature effects; and thats a bad sign right there, when your actors are making fun of the creatures in your film. At a certain point in the film, you kind of get the feeling that the filmmakers themselves are kind of making fun of Whitley Strieber's story. As if they weren't taking it seriously themselves, cant say I blame them. 

All in all, this is a dissapointing film. I liked certain elements of it, and it had an interesting premise but the direction and the creature effects bring the film down way too much for me to fully enjoy it. It has this Twilight Zone/dreamlike feel to it which I kind of enjoyed, but as an effective alien abduction film, I say this one failed horribly because you never feel like the film is taking itself seriously. In other words: the film feels uneven. I recommend this one only if you're in the mood to watch a really weird film, or if you are in the mood for watching a film that you just can't quite figure out why you don't like. Mediocre at best; sadly, this is the best Philippe Mora film I have seen. 

Rating: 2 out of 5

My favorite image in the entire film

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Title: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Director: Wes Anderson 

Cast: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand


Wes Anderson is one of those directors whose films are immediately recognizable. You see a moment, an image, a frame and right there and then, you just know its a Wes Anderson film. Not once has he deviated from his style, not even with his stop motion animation film Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009); a film I enjoyed very much because it was an intelligent childrens film, that didn't talk down to kids as if they were idiots. Even within the confines of a stop motion animation film, Anderson's themes and style shined through. To me Anderson is one of those great American directors that puts lots of love and care, lots of craft in his films. He doesn't just make films, he makes a special effort to give us a work of art, something to be cherished and admired for years. I know I'm guilty of seeing The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) on countless occasions, laughing every step of the way every single time I see it. There's something endearing about his troubled characters, they are intelligent, often times geniuses that have as many psychological problems as the poorest people in the world. So here comes Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and of course I was excited about seeing Anderson's newest endeavour, would his style feel tired and redundant, or would it still delight?

Moonrise Kingdom tells the story of Sam and Suzy, two pre-teens who are wildly ahead of their time and proud of it. They are kids that are so smart that they end up garnering hatred from all of their peers. In his case, Sam cant stand being a 'Khaki Scout', he's learned all he can from it and he is ready to move on to more important the opposite sex, true love, and yes, why not, even marriage. Suzy doesn't seem to fit with her family either. She considers herself a troubled youth; so, considering they have so much in common, they both decide to run away and create their own perfect little universe where they shun all the things they consider wrong in this world out of their lives. Will their happiness be interrupted? Or will it last forever?

So yeah, immediately you can tell it's Anderson behind the camera. It's all about those perfectly symmetrical shots, the detailed art direction, the psychologically troubled characters, the deliciously sarcastic dialog, the retro-look. The way that children act as adults, and adults act like children. The beauty of the films color scheme, so many things make this one oh so very Anderson-ish. Yet I welcomed it because I love taking a trip to Anderson's own personal filmic universe. It's what sets him apart and makes him different from other directors out there, and I appreciate that. Some might find his  films redundant, because of how similar they look, but honestly, I am not complaining, this is a beautiful looking film which I was devouring with my eyes. I can't complain when the result is such a beauty to behold. Complaining about how Anderson's films look is like saying that a Tim Burton film is 'too gothic'. This is just Anderson's own personal brand of filmmaking, and he aims to make you get used to it. Because these are his films, and very much so. You'll either love them or not, because at this point, Anderson's style is here to stay.

Wes Anderson, preparing to shoot a scene

Yet, not only is Moonrise Kingdom beautiful to look at but it is also populated by wonderful characters that are so well crafted and defined in their actions and motivations. I immediately fell in love with the two main characters, Sam and Suzy, two kids with the rebel gene engraved deep into their DNA. These two kids hate the way the world is and choose to turn their backs to it. Sam is an orphan, whose real parents he never met. And the foster parents he does have, don't want him! Suzy dislikes her mother because she knows about her infidelities. Together, both Sam and Suzy turn their backs to the world, finding their only little nook in a secret beach that they claim for themselves. This is their spot in the world, untainted by the evils of society. On this little spot they'll share their favorite books, share their first sensual encounters and truly bond as human beings. Who can blame them for doing that? So I loved these two head strong, oddball kids. I loved how much they respect and care for each other. How they take each other so seriously. This was a very honest portrayal of what it's like to be a kid and feel everything for the first time. 

So apparently, being in an Anderson film has become the equivalent of being in a Woody Allen film, or a Tarantino film. Or a film by the Coen Bros. You know how that goes, once actors get a whiff that a great director is making a film, they all want in! This is exactly what happened on Moonrise Kingdom, it's stellar cast is a testament to that. Loved that Bill Murray came on board once again for another Anderson film, it's gotten to the point where it almost feels like it wouldn't be an Anderson film without Murray in it; and so this marks Murray's sixth collaboration with Anderson. Jason Schwartzman is back again, albeit in a very small role (sadly) but I enjoyed his participation anyways. Everyone else here is new in Anderson's universe: Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, even Harvey Keitel is on board here! An amazing cast that makes everything all the more interesting. But by far, I loved the fact that the two main characters Sam and Suzy where played by complete unknowns; I felt like I was getting to know them for the very first time, and they worked so well together, they displayed true emotion and at times, great comedic timing. 

How similar is Moonrise Kingdom to previous Anderson films? Well, for example, we have two extremely intelligent kids running away from home, same as Margot and Richie Tenenbaum ran away from home in The Royal Tenenbaums. Characters like to build tents, because they feel safe in them. Bill Murray plays the drunken unhappy father character he played in Anderson's Rushmore (1998). Parents are unfaithful to each other, same as in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Families are not perfect, in fact, extremely far from it. The word is dysfunctional. Everyone talks very eloquently and expresses their emotions as if they were wearing them on their sleeves, but then again, this is what makes it all an Anderson film. I hear you thinking: "is there something that makes this one different?" My answer is yes, this is a film about children and it is told from their perspective, so in that sense, it's something that Anderson had not done before. This is not a film about kids who grew up to become messed up adults. These kids are already messed up, and thats what we are here to see. This theme of psychologically troubled children is referred to in a book that Suzy's reading; a book about how to deal with very troubled youths. I love how it explores the fact that what happens in family life can truly mark the life of a child. 

 It's obvious that Anderson's films touch upon very personal themes, and that they reflect his own life, he's even referred to this possibility in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), a film in which one of his characters is writing himself and his life into his stories, but then denies the fact that he does this. The same can be said of Margot Tenenbaum and her plays, which reflect her own disastrous family life as seen in Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), so yes, like most directors, Wes Anderson's films touch upon themes and situations that he calls up from his own life experiences. Again, this is what makes an Anderson film an Anderson film, if you haven't enjoyed his films up to now, then don't bother with Moonrise Kingdom, if on the other had you are a fan, you are going to love it. And if you've never experienced and Anderson film, by all means, indulge in this endearing film. My favorite part of the film is that it takes place on this magical, mystical island that only Wes Anderson could bring to life.   

Rating: 5 out of 5

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Title: Prometheus (2012)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Patrick Wilson

Ridley Scott’s most recent foray into science fiction -Prometheus- is in many ways different then its predecessors and in many ways the same. As I’m sure many of you know, Prometheus is a prequel to Ridley Scott’s own Alien (1979), the film that redefined sci-fi films and kick started the whole alien franchise. It also happens to be the first science fiction film from Ridley Scott since he made Blade Runner (1982). It’s interesting how Scott denied that this was a prequel for a while, only to later admit that the film does in fact take place within the same universe. That’s right my friends, Scott is playing on familiar ground here. The art design for the interior of the spaceship looks like something that might have come out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) or Scott’s own Alien; you know, lots of white corridors, very cramped, very claustrophobic. Same as all the other films in the Alien franchise, The Wayland Corporation is the company that oversees space exploration; and same as all previous Alien films, every spaceship gets an android to accompany them. So yeah, this film has a certain familiarity to it for fans of the Alien franchise; the question on my mind was what was going make this one different?

On this film we meet a group of archeologists/scientists that are hot on the trail of humanities origins. They are after the answers to the biggest questions in life: Where did we come from? Who made us? And why did they abandon us? Their search begins with  a series ancient paintings they find, in all of these ancient paintings from different eras in human history, the same image is depicted: humans pointing to the same constellations in the sky. So they zero in on this constellation and embark on a journey towards this sector of the universe, hoping to find the engineers of humanity. Will they find what they are looking for?

To me, Ridley Scott is this cinematic god, he makes movies that I end up falling in love with and can watch over and over again; so of course, seeing this movie in theaters was a major event for me! Like the Greek story of Prometheus, Scott’s films feel like stolen fire from the gods themselves. The worlds Ridley Scott creates are so rich and detailed that he can make a fantastic setting a reality; Blade Runner (1982), Legend (1985) or Gladiator (2000), no matter how fantastic the setting, these worlds feel real, complex and intricate. Another thing that distinguishes Ridley Scott’s films is that they have the highest production values. He makes sure he’s working with the best of the best in order to produce a high quality film. This is also the case with Prometheus, one look at the film and you can just tell that the people that were behind the cameras knew what they were doing. For example, the visual effects work in Prometheus is flawless. This time though, I have no idea who the conceptual artists behind Prometheus are; I don’t know who’s handling the visual effects or the make up effects; to me Prometheus is Scott working with a whole new generation of creative talents; which of course is great, if you’ve seen Alien, then you’ll feel a familiarity with this world, yet at the same time, it will feel new and fresh. I love how Scott’s approach towards visual effects is “if you can do it live, do it live”, an advice given to him by fx guru Douglas Trumbull while filming Blade Runner. This is the main reason why Scott doesn’t overdo CGI; if he can build a set, he will. This kind of filmmaking adds a level of realism that is quickly disappearing from today’s films, where sometimes they construct only half a set, or only the floor is real; not so in Prometheus where Scott spent a large part of his budget on good old fashioned set construction. Normally I hate CGI, but I've always said that when it's done well, it really, really works. Im glad to say that Prometheus is one of those rare occassions when CGI is done right.

Both Alien and Prometheus have certain similarities, but the differences are evident as well. For example, while Alien was a straightforward horror film and for all intents and purposes a monster flick, Prometheus is more of a philosophical film. Like many of the best science fiction films, this one explores the bigger question that humanity asks itself like for example: where the hell did we really come from? And therein lays the crux of this film. It questions religion; it questions the existence of god. Should we believe in life after death? Why are there so many different beliefs on the matter? Could it be that no one really knows the answers to these questions and so we simply choose to believe what we want about the after life and God? This is the main reason why I loved this movie so much; it asks these big questions and actually attempts to answer them. Prometheus basically summarizes where humanity stands with regards to these questions. Yet the film doesn’t eschew the Christian angle of things, actually, Christianity is represented through its main character Elizabeth Shaw as played by Noomi Rapace. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t expecting for Prometheus to touch upon some of the themes that Blade Runner plays with, namely, why we die. This is the reason why I love Blade Runner so much. It has its android protagonists ask their creator for more life. Prometheus also plays with these ideas, which I found fascinating considering Ridley Scott himself is getting pretty old. I’m sure this is a theme that matters to him as a filmmaker now more than ever; so he touches upon it yet again on Prometheus. This is probably why we have characters addressing the issues of life after death, or characters simply wanting, searching to elongate their lives, this once again, and same as Blade Runner, is a film about accepting death. “A King has his reign and then he dies, it’s inevitable” says Meredith Vickers to her employer Peter Weyland; by the way, to me, Scott expressed a lot of his concerns about death through the Weyland character. After all, Scott was 74 at the time of making Prometheus! My admiration goes out to Mr. Scott for making such an amazing film in his golden years. 

Ridley Scott made Prometheus at 74, that's what I call one tough cookie! 

The great thing about Prometheus is that even though it tackles all these philosophically heavy themes, it does not forget to entertain. We get some awesome looking aliens and creatures on this one! Fun stuff! A bit gruesome at times, but then again this is probably why the film earned (thankfully!) its “R” rating. Yet, when compared to Alien, Prometheus feels sometimes a bit constrained on this department, you can tell times have changed, there’s not a lot of blood on this one. But things do get gruesome, and gory believe it or not, the film plays a fine balance in my book between showing you just enough mayhem. Finally, I will say that I was not one bit disappointed with this film. I don’t get why people are saying that it’s flawed? Flawed how? I guess comparing it to Alien is the reason, but we have to remember, that even though Prometheus is obviously linked to the Alien universe of films, it’s still its own beast. It’s obvious that Scott was aiming for a film with its own personality and uniqueness, not a film that felt like it was walking on tired ground. Maybe the scientists don’t act professional enough at times and get themselves into peril too easily? Almost as if they were asking for it? Maybe…but then again, we have to remember this is also a horror film; characters have to put themselves in peril! Highly recommend it, in my book this film was nothing short of epic, amazing, thrilling…top notch, cutting edge filmmaking at its best. This is Scott showing us he’s still got it! I can’t wait to see what he’ll do with that Blade Runner sequel he keeps talking so much about. Prometheus gets the highest possible recommendation from this Film Connoisseur!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, Richard Burton


1984 remains a monumental piece of literature that everyone should read at least once in their lives. For those who haven’t had the experience of reading George Orwell’s 1984 I’ll give you the lowdown. This was a novel written way back in 1949 as a cautionary tale; a “what if” of what could happen to our collective and individual freedoms should a totalitarian government arise. This was Orwell looking into the future and seeing a very grim, cold and impersonal society. Oceania is a society devoid of emotions, individuality and freedom. In this future, everyone dresses the same colors, children rat out their parents should they betray the government and big brother (read: the government) is always watching you, they know what your saying, they know what your doing, they are in your home, Big Brother dominates the lives of the people of Oceania. Be it through the huge television screen that everyone has in their homes, or by hidden cameras and microphones, Big Brother knows. In this future there is such a thing as a ‘thought crime’ and a government ruled organization created to deal with them called the ‘thought police’. Basically, in this world, you are not allowed to speak your mind, oh and sex is a crime, you can only have sex if you are married and even then, it’s to have children; not for pleasure. 1984 was a novel written to warn us of what we should never allow our countries or governments to become. Sad part is that many of the things that happen in this novel and are meant to be considered horrid abuses of human rights are actively happening in our modern world.

Mind control at full force! 

Over the years, Orwell’s book has proven to be prophetic. How is Orwell’s novel slowly becoming a reality? Let’s see, we can start by mentioning that ‘Big Brother’ is watching over us all the time. We do have video cameras constantly surveying us, watching us, documenting our behavior. We have devices that can pinpoint our exact location. We all have huge television screens in our homes (they get bigger every year) which the media uses to manipulate public opinion. Many news channels display the faces of the current political enemies and make the masses hate and despise them, same as the ‘two minutes of hate’ that appear in the book and film. These two minutes of hate are two minutes in which political enemies of Oceania are displayed by the government on huge screens so that the proletariat (the working class) can scream and hate them.  At one moment Winston says “There is truth and there is untruth, to be in the minority of one does not make you mad” a statement that makes perfect sense in this world we live in; by this I mean that in our society, whenever you think differently for example by not being patriotic or  not believing in god or religion, well, then to the rest of society your just a nut job, a loon. The idea behind this statement is that just because you are in the minority does not mean you are wrong. Sadly, this is what happens in the world we live in, if you’re not thinking with the collective then you’re a conspiracy nut, or a crazy.

Even though we live in a slightly ‘liberal’ society, sex before marriage is still frowned upon by the grand majority of the population; the desire to have sex is something that comes naturally from within us, yet religions seek to dampen our sexualities, demonize them by calling sex before marriage a ‘sin’ same as in the world of 1984 where sex is a crime!  The beautiful thing about 1984 is that the love that Winston and Julia develop for each other is genuine; they truly do love each other. They enjoy each others warmth and company, where pray tell is the crime in that? Same as in Bernardo  Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (1999), sex can become the ultimate act of revolution, the ultimate expression of freedom; it’s the one thing that the system cannot take away from you, the love, the affection, the warmth. In other words, the things that makes us human. And remaining human is a big part of 1984, it’s at the very core of it. Winston himself says it: “It’s not so much about staying alive, it’s staying human that’s important. What count’s is that we don’t betray each other.” “If they can make me change my feelings, if they can stop me from loving you, that would be betrayal” to which Julia answers: “They can’t do that. It’s the one thing they can’t do. They can torture you, they can make you say anything, but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you. They can’t get to your heart”  

Amongst other themes the film plays with, Nineteen Eighty Four is primarily about being able to speak your mind and say the truth about things, it’s about freedom of the mind, of being able to tell it like it is. To say that 2 + 2 = 4 and not 5. It’s about the ability to have control over your own mind, to say what you want to say without fear. Are we living in a world in which you can do that? Because if we’re not, then we’re living in Orwell’s nightmarish totalitarian future, and it’s come true. But then again if this is what is actually happening, and we’re living the nightmare, way back in 1949, Orwell knew it would happen. He said it with his novel. He’d seen the future and he knew what it was going to be like. “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever” That line of dialog is so gut wrenching, yet so true. How many times have we not seen government stomping, no worse, killing, murdering their people? So yeah, 1984 was prophetic in deed.

The film itself is a marvelous adaptation of Orwell’s book. It captures the essence, the mood and the overall vibe that Orwell created in his masterwork. The film has a slightly decolorized look to it, reflecting the dreary lives and world in which these characters live in. John Hurt perfectly embodies Winston Smith, the epitome of the blue collar worker, working day by day to pay his way in life, which isn’t much of a life. It’s boring and redundant, so much so that he thirsts desperately for something more; he hates what his life has become. He wants passion and freedom; two things that can make anyone feel alive. Richard Burton did his last film performance here, he died before the film was premiered, but his portrayal of O’Brien, the government operative, is chilling and memorable one, so cold, so robotic. Between film and book there are very few differences…some moments from the book where left out and I do feel that the ending was a bit more grueling in the book, but the film gets its points across as well, just not as detailed and extended as in the book. Still, I’d say that this is an excellent adaptation, which is something that rarely happens in the book to film transition.

So folks, we’re talking about an important book and film here, I highly recommend everyone out there to read the book and then see this film. It’s one of my favorite books, it actually brought me to tears while reading it, its that good. Not many books have that effect on me, but this one really got to me. How influential is this novel in the film world? Well, I can mention some of the films that were influenced by it for example: V for Vendetta (2005), Brazil (1985), Equilibrium (2002) and THX-1138 (1971) to mention but a few. For more on films of this nature, check out this article I wrote a while back called Totalitarian Futures (Big Brother is Watching You!) In the end, though Nineteen Eighty-Four is sad and torturous to watch at points because of how strongly we feel the systems boot stomping on humanities face, the film does have an inspiring message. That evil will fail, that humanity will prevail, someway, somehow, goodness will win in the end, let’s hope that Orwell's novel was equally prophetic with these words as well.    

Rating for both the book and the film: 5 out of 5

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Alien (1979)

Title: Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott 

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto


Alien is what this Film Connoisseur calls a perfect film, not a single thing is wrong with it, every single moment, frame, shot, performance, effect is top notch perfect. Without a doubt, one of the greatest science fiction films ever made which is why I am excited as hell for Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012). Why am I excited for Prometheus? Well, let me count the ways. First off, Prometheus marks Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, a genre he hasn't revisited since he made Blade Runner (1982) all those years ago. The thing about Ridley Scott is that he's the kind of director who likes jumping from genre to genre. He'll do a sci-fi, he'll do a sword and sandal, he'll do a chick flick, he'll do a period film, a war name it, and Scott has visited that genre. One of the few genres he hasn't done is a western, but I bet if he did a western, he'd do the best damn western you'll ever see. And thats the thing about Scott, whatever the genre he is tackling, you can rest assure that he will do it justice. You can rest assured that the film he is working on will be a good representation of the kind of film he is making. For example, look at Legend (1985) Scotts foray into the realm of fantasy films. Without a doubt, one of the best fantasy films ever made. So yeah, of course I am jizzing in my pants over Prometheus premiering next week. The previews let me see that I wont be dissapointed. It just looks like it will blow my mind, I hope that it will. Scratch that, I'm damn near sure it will, it's a rare occassion when Ridley Scott dissapoints with a film. So all things considered, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit Alien, the film that started the highly successful Alien franchise, and the film that directly connects to Prometheus

Prometheus will finally shine some light on this dead aliens origins

Alien is all about these space miners traveling back home on their spaceship 'The Nostromo'.  They are ready to kick back, relax and take that ten month journey to earth. Who knows, maybe they'll even get a bonus. Unfortunately, along their treck home they come across a beacon from a nearby planet. What could it be? Is it a distress signal? Where is it coming from? Wayland Yutani, the corporate monster that pays these space miners, sends them to investigate the alien planet with the insentive that they'll get a share of whatever they find. Could it be an alien spaceship? Could this be humanities first encounter with a lifeform other than themselves? 

Weaver plays Ripley, the heroine of these films

This film has many good things going for it. I love it because I am enamored of films that take place in the deep recesses of space. I've always loved this setting for a film because it alienates the human from its home planet, it creates an isolated environment which is the perfect mix for a horror film. And yes, make no mistake, Alien is a horror film, which makes it all the more interesting because I believe it's the one and only horror film that Ridley Scott has ever made, and again, it's a damn good one. Its a damn perfect horror film actually. How perfect is it? Well, I've seen this movie many, many times over and there are these moments in the film that still get me no matter how many times I've seen it. The suspense can be cut with a knife. Ridley Scott really knew how to orchestrate a film that would scare the pants off off anyone who saw it; which is why I'm also looking forward to Prometheus. Scott has gone down saying that all he wants to do is scare the pants off his audience and I'm looking forward to that! Especially when it's such a masterful director doing it. 

Ridley Scott was 40 when he made Alien

But what elements make Alien such a perfect blend of science fiction and horror? Well, the talent behind this film is astonishing to say the least. The people involved in it were some of the best writers, artists and filmmakers the world had to offer. First up, Dan O'Bannon wrote the film. Dan O Bannon wasn't just any old writer, this was a guy who knew the horror genre, he knew science fiction films in and out. He was a geek supreme; he knew what was cool, what worked. For example, one of Dan O Bannon's first forays into filmmaking was a little indy sci-fi film called Dark Star (1974). Don't know how many of you guys out there have seen Dark Star, but it was John Carpenter's first full length film. It's not the best film ever made, but it showed promise. Is the film horrifying? Is it trying to be funny? I still dont know exactly how to define it. To me Dark Star was simply a group of hungry, yet extremely creative people testing their filmmaking skills for the first time, trying out this filmmaking thing. The results are amusing, but obviously very low brow, very low budget. The monster on that film was a beach ball for christ sake! You have to see it to understand what I'm talking about. Ultimately, Dan O Bannon wasn't too satisfied with the resulting film, but this was a good thing, because it's what propelled him to write and have a burning desire to make a serious, more threatening science fiction film. He was going to make sure that the creature on his next science fiction film was not a beach ball. This burning desire to make a more convincing and horrifying villain is probably what gave birth to one of the greatest monsters in all of filmdom: the alien. The result of O'Bannon's frustrations was a screenplay called 'Star Beast', ultimately, O'Bannon himself changed it to 'Alien' because of how many times the word Alien appeared on the script. And so, the first steps towards getting Alien made had been taken. 

H.R. Giger's 'Necrom IV' the painting that decided how the titular alien was going to look 

But it wasnt just Dan O'Bannon's excelent script that made Alien a winner. The conceptual artists behind the film where some of the best science fiction/fantasy artists to ever walk the face of the earth. I'm talking about Jean Giraud a.k.a. 'Moebius' and the always excentric and down right creepy fantasy artists known as H.R. Giger. Ridley Scott was worried about how the alien would look, it was one of the few things that truly worried him during pre-production for the film, but once he saw H.R. Giger's painting known as ' Necrom IV', he knew his worries were over. He immediately contacted Giger and asked him to work directly in the design of the Alien, the results where nothing short of memorable. Giger even designed the interiors of the alien spaceship! While Giger worked on the creature designs, Giraud contributed with the look of other elements onthe film. Giraud's style is present on the Nostromo's many hallways and the spacesuits that the miners use. Giraud was a great asset to this films set designs and art direction. Moebius was a true visionary, he never stopped drawing fantasy and science fiction. He contributed on many film projects; for example, he was responsible for the look of Luc Besson's The Fifth Element (1997), the look of the glowing suits in TRON (1982). He worked a bit on Masters of the Universe (1987) a film that looks a whole lot better than it should thanks to Giraud's contributions. Point is, whatever film he was working on, you could rest assured that it was going to look that much more unique and interesting, he was going to make it a better film simply because of his involvement. Sadly, this hero of mine recently died on March 10, 2012. He left a lasting mark on the art world, and on many of the films he helped create. Just remember, whenever you see those cool looking suits and spaceships on Alien, that's Jean Giraud's contributions to the film. The mechanical creatures built to bring the alien to life where constructed by the legendary Carlo Rambaldi, the guy behind such creations as E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) and the giant sandworms of Dune (1984). So I think it's safe to say we had a powerhouse creative crew behind this film. Topple that with the fact that Ridley Scott was behind the camera and you got yourselves a masterpiece my friends. 

Jean Giraud contributed largely to the look of the film

So yeah, we had an incredible group of creative geniuses behind this film. Whenever any film gathers such an amazing group of individuals, you can be sure that the film is going to be something special. And Alien turned out to be just that. It was a huge financial success, it spawned three direct sequels and two spin off films which pitted the Aliens vs. the Predators from the Predator films. Comic books, video games, toys have all been made based on the film, and lets not forget the many rip offs that this film spawned! Dont believe me? Well, heres a couple of films influenced by Alien, check them out and tell me if I'm not right: Leviathan (1989), Galaxy of Terror (1981), Outland (1981), Inseminoid (1981), Creature (1985), Star Crystal (1986) and the Italian Rip Offs (we couldn't leave those out now could we?) Contamination (1980) and Alien 2: On Earth (1980). And that's just the tip of the iceberg, Alien influenced many more films then the ones I've just mentioned. Whenever a film impacts the film world in this world, it means it's made an impression on people, it means that it's not just any film, but a special film, and this my friends is what Alien is, a special film that still manages to spook and amaze with it's pitch perfect suspense and astounding visuals. Ridley Scott amassed this amazing amount of talent for this film because he himself is an artist, a visionary. Many of the shots on this film could be paintings, you could just freeze frame these and put them on your wall, which makes Alien not just a sci-fi/horror film, but a work of art. Each film in the Alien franchise is special for its own different reasons, different directors have brought their unique visions of this universe, the result is an interesting bunch of films, but with Prometheus, Scott is returning to the universe he helped create which is why I'm so looking forward to seeing it. Look forward for my review of Prometheus in the coming weeks, hopefully it will be another genre defining film, from a director who loves wowing us, and as far as I'm concerned still has the capacity and creativity to do it. 

Rating: 5 out of 5

This moment still gets me ever single time I watch the film! 


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