Saturday, September 29, 2012

Time Bandits

In my review of Amelie, I half-jokingly said that movie was an amalgam of the sensibilities of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and a French Terry Gilliam. With Time Bandits (1981), we get to see what the actual Terry Gilliam would have done with Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. One of Gilliam's earliest works, Time Bandits is a time-traveling adventure story that already illustrates Gilliam's (the American member of Monty Python) unique visual sensibilities, anarchic yet whimsical sense of humor, and his subversive streak.

Kevin (Craig Warnock) is a bright young boy neglected by his technology-obsessed parents when one night his reality literally comes crashing down when a group of time-traveling dwarfs stumble out of his bedroom closet and take him on a trip to various locales throughout  history to steal treasure. All the while, they are pursued by their boss, the Supreme Being, for stealing his map that shows all the locations of different time holes through which they can travel to anywhere in the universe. But they don't realize their every movement is being tracked by the Evil One (David Warner), an evil genius who desires the map so he can escape his prison, the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, and take over the world.

Throughout their journeys, Kevin and the dwarfs (that sounds like a band name) run into a number of prominent historical figures played by well-known actors in essentially extended walk-ons: Ian Holm as Napoleon, John Cleese as Robin Hood, and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon. Michael Palin (who co-wrote the script with Gilliam) and Shelley Duvall show up twice as a pair of foppish twits, once to be robbed by the Merry Men and later to be passengers on the Titanic.  Gilliam takes merciless joy in sending up these figures: as the city burns around, Napoleon laughs at a puppet show in which the "little things hit each other" and then foolishly appoints the dwarfs his new generals. As Robin Hood, Cleese is in Sir Lancelot mode, utterly daft; as he hands out trinkets to the poor, one of his men punches each recipient. "Is that really necessary?" Robin asks, to which his cohort replies, "Afraid so, sir." Agamemnon is probably the most dignified, and Connery plays with him authority and nobility, but he too is bamboozled by the robbers.

Gilliam also works in a number of purely fantasy elements. At one point, Kevin and the dwarfs commandeer a sailing ship and wind up on the head of a giant. The ship itself is owned by Winston the Ogre (Peter Vaughn) and his wife (Katherine Helmond, who is not made up to look like a monster), and the matter-of-factly manner in which they talk about cooking our heroes while Winston complains about his bad back is quite funny. Also very good is Warner, who certainly carries a fair amount of menace and threat. He's not a frothing-at-the-mouth, over-the-top sorcerer one would expect, but rather, he's calm and nonchalant, giving  statements to his minions like, "Dear Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence," and "Suddenly, I feel very, very good ... It'll pass."

What separates Time Bandits from the likes of Bill and Ted is the sense of wonder Gilliam conjures up. Unlike the dunderheaded duo, Kevin is curious and amazed by his surroundings, and we see he likes to read and document what he encounters, and unlike plenty of other child-centered movies, he's not not an obnoxiously cute kid. Gilliam includes several awe-inspiring shots, particularly in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, visualized a dark maze with hanging cages and some rather freaky-looking hooded figures.  And of course, it wouldn't be a Gilliam film without scenes of wanton destruction.

Time Bandits is a fun, whimsical adventure movie with moments of darkness. The plot is mostly episodic, and there's no real arc to speak of, but it's great fun and wonderfully visualized.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Mangler

There are two types of narratives and two types of tones The Mangler (1995), an adaptation of a Stephen King short story that appeared in his Night Shift collection, could have adopted. Like the source material, it could have been presented as a straightforward police procedural, the story of a cop investigating a series of mysterious deaths at an industrial laundry who finds a demonic influence on the case (think Angel Heart), or it could have played up the Faustian elements of the material and made it a sort of Gothic, gorified Little Shop of Horrors. Either treatment could have been played for grim, droll, dark thrills or campy, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek splatter comedy. Unfortunately, director Tobe Hooper, best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, tries to include everything, and the result is every intended effect is negated. 

Officer John Hunton (Ted Levine) investigates when an elderly worker at the Blue Ribbon Laundry is killed after she's pulled into an industrial laundry press machine, nicknamed "The Mangler." The ancient machine is clearly not in shape to be operating, but the laundry's owner Bill Gartley (Robert Englund under poundage of rather unconvincing old-age makeup) has power and influence over the town and keeps the Mangler running. Hunton discusses the case with his brother-in-law Mark Jackson (Daniel Matmor), a college professor who specializes in the paranormal. Jackson is convinced the machine is possessed by a demon, but Hutton remains skeptical until he uncovers a conspiracy involving the town's history of missing daughters.

Let me emphasize the movie's monster in case you glanced over it, or it just didn't register.  An industrial laundry press machine possessed by a demon. And it eats the workers. I'm not sure which is the bigger challenge for the filmmakers: how ludicrous the situation is or trying to present for an entire feature film. King's story, while certainly not his best work, is engaging and pretty creepy. Less than 20 pages long, it's follows Hunton on his investigation as he pieces all the clues together until he must accept the impossible. King doesn't linger on the gore, instead using chilling descriptions and reactions by the characters to convey how monstrous the machine is and how horrible the deaths must have been. He even manages to give the Mangler itself something of a personality; at times, it seems to taunt the pitiful humans who inspect it.

The movie retains this central narrative but gives increased emphasis on Gartley, a figure only mentioned in passing in the short story. Here, we learn Gartley has some kind of deal with the devil, sacrificing blood of the town's virgins (I kid you not) to the demon in the Mangler in exchange for wealth and power (but apparently not eternal youth). In the story, the possession occurred more or less randomly, with different ingredients for a spell having fallen in the machine over the years being enough to summon a demon. Hence, when a woman is killed, it's a big deal; the demon has arrived. In the movie. Gartley has been feeding the machine virgins for years, and now the police are investigating?

I'd like to be more forgiving for this sort of lack of logic. After all, in Texas Chainsaw, nothing is really explained; the teenagers just sort of stumble into this horrific, surreal situation that kills them one by one in a random, haphazard manner. But the world presented in Chainsaw felt real, plausible, and gritty. It was famously filmed in a way that made it look like a documentary; the killings were all the more disturbing because they took place off screen.

The setting of The Mangler, the Maine town of Riker's Valley, never feels real. In my review of Troll 2,  I mentioned Rob Zombie's description of the Chainsaw actors: "these crazy people sure can act." They seemed like real people in Hooper's masterpiece, but in The Mangler, arguably Hooper's nadir, the characters just seem like bad actors. Accents are all over the place, dubbing is quite obvious, and delivery feels off. The narrative feels like it takes place over the course of one day and night, but it feels so sloppy, and events feel thrown together without context. logic, or conviction. Hooper films the movie in an exaggerated, almost comic-book style - a lot  of wide angles, flashing lights, and low-angles (he's certainly trying) - but it just makes it come off as hokey.

The gore is plentiful and disgusting, but that's about it. It's not really scary. Hooper (who co-wrote the screenplay with two others) also fails to make the demonic aspect believable. It's introduced and accepted so quickly, the audience doesn't have time to buy. Like many aspects of the film, it just feels thrown in. Instead of building to the final exorcism, the movie has to kill a lot of time without much going on. At one point, Hunton and Jackson duke it out with an icebox that has become possessed as a result of coming into contact with the machine. The icebox was a throwaway reference in the story when the characters discuss other possessions they've heard of; by actually working it in, the filmmakers come off as clueless.

The Mangler is not without some interest. Hooper has always been fascinated by the corrupting influence of industrial capitalism, and that's represented here by the robber baron Gartley. An old man artificially kept alive way past his expiration date, lumbering around on twin leg braces and with a bad eye and a tracheotomy, he wheezes, "There's a a little bit of me in that machine and a little bit of it in me." For power, he sacrifices all: health, family, employees, soul. Riker's Valley, we're told (though not shown), is an idyllic town, but beneath the surface, there's deep-seated rot and depravity. Man and machine can be a two-headed monster.

The machine itself is impressive, a massive, imposing, and dangerous contraption that looks like it belongs in something Charles Dickens would dream up. The atmosphere of the factory is dank and oppressive, full sweat, steam, grime, and misery. Hooper creates a peculiar style and energy to the movie, and he seems to appreciate some of the story's inherent absurdities. The movie is filled with anachronisms: flash-bulb photographers, ice boxes, industrial laundries, etc. Perhaps if this had been a period movie, focusing on an employee caught between poverty and working in proximity to a demonic machine and master, it might have been able to work on a serious level. Or keep the detective angle, drop the conspiracy aspect, and it might have worked as a straight-up adaptation for Tales from the Crypt.

The Mangler is absurd yet dreary, made with equal parts skill and incompetence, ridiculous as it repulsive. I get a sense of what Hooper was going for, and I admire that, but the movie gets bogged down in too many nonsensical distractions, the script lacks a clear focus, and the reality of the movie is never firmly established or convincing.  Send this one to the cleaners.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Amelie

Amelie (2001) resembles the kind of movie Terry Gilliam might make if he were French and wanted to remake Ferris Bueller's Day Off and combine it with Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Amelie is more or less set in the real world, but it would not be inaccurate to call it a fantasy. There aren't any witches, time traveling,  ghosts, or fairies, but it's about just how fantastic real life can be as long as you stop and appreciate the small details.

Our main character is, of course, Amelie (Audrey Tautou), a child-like waitress at the Parisian cafe, the Two Windmills. Because her doctor father Raphael (Rufus) mistakenly diagnosed her with a heart condition, she had a sheltered and secluded childhood away from other people and has grown up to be rather introverted, content with her imagination. One day, she finds in her apartment a hidden box of childhood treasures of a former tenant. After arranging that he gets the keepsakes back and witnessing his reaction, Amelie decides to help others find happiness, playing secret helper and matchmaker to the people of the cafe, her father, and others, and in the process, she finds love.

The film is constructed almost as a series of vignettes as Amelie helps people in different ways, all the while emerging from shell. Instead of announcing herself as a Good Samaritan and taking credit for her deeds, she, like a practical jokester, stages elaborate schemes. Her father secretly desires to travel the world but holds off; Amelie steals his prized garden gnome and has pictures of it taken at different world landmarks and sends them to her father as postcards. The man whose childhood keepsakes she returns finds them inside a ringing telephone booth and is inspired to reconnect with estranged daughter. In another case, Amelie takes letters written by the long-dead husband of her apartment building's concierge (whom he abandoned) and forges a new letter offering reconciliation dated just before his death.

Jeunet films the movie in a skewed style that suggests the fantastic, even though the story is more or less set in the real world and plausible. He relies on a lot of closeup shots of faces, wide-angle lenses that distort features, and rapid, almost frantic editing. Early in the film, the narrator introduces all the usual customers and employees at the cafe by describing one little thing they enjoy and one little thing that drives them crazy. In one scene, Amelie helps a blind man cross a busy street and instead of just getting him across, she guides him to the metro station, all the while breathlessly describing the sights to him, the camera jumping to each subject as she gets to them. In another, the narrator says Amelie likes to gaze at the city and ponder questions such as how many couples are achieving orgasm at that moment: cue a rapidly-cut montage of nameless people engaged in the act of coitus and climaxing with Amelie turning to the camera and declaring 15. It's an appropriate style that matches the breeziness and wonder of the main character.

I can't recall seeing a movie this sweet and innocent that wasn't specifically aimed at children. Sure, there are elements of death, loneliness, and jealousy, but Jeunet doesn't dwell on them. The movie is simply charming and about how wonderful it it to be alive.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Land Before Time

Think of Jurassic Park; now, what's the first thing that comes to mind? If your answer is anything other than the lawyer getting chomped on the toilet by the T-Rex, please never read this blog again. Why are dinosaurs so appealing? I doubt there's anyone who hasn't at least at one point in his or her life liked them. Their appearances are straight out of mythical fantasy, but unlike dragons and sea monsters, we know dinosaurs once walked the earth, but we as humans never interacted with them. That gap between the time of man and the time of dinosaur is so vast, it leaves plenty of room to stir the imagination.

Unfortunately, stirs the imagination is not a phrase I would use to describe The Land Before Time (1988), directed by Don Bluth (of The Secret of NIMH fame) and "presented" by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The first in a series of eventually 13 movies (mostly straight-to-video), The Land Before Time is cutesy, schmaltzy, mainstream children's entertainment all the way. The only wonder is how a movie not even 70 minutes long somehow managed to inspire so many sequels.

The Land Before Time is the story of five baby dinosaurs: a "long-neck" named Littlefoot, a "three-horn named" Cera, a "big mouth" named Duckie, a "flyer" named Petrie, and a "spiked tail" named Spike. While migrating to what may be the last fertile place on the planet, the five are separated from their families during an earthquake. Determined, they continue, working together to survive and evade the dreaded "sharp tooth." Much of this is explained by an unnecessary narrator who likes to spell out the movie's themes.

Disappointingly, this is not a movie with a very distinctive look or standout animation. While the character models work well enough (although they can't always seem to maintain a consistent size), the backgrounds lack any interesting details or vivid imagery. Much of the movie is set in a desolate, rocky desert, and it's just kind of blah. Consider the "Circle of Life" opening in The Lion King, the mansion of Beauty and the Beast, or the vividness of Toy Story (or any Pixar movie for that matter), and it's easy to see how flat The Land Before Time comes off in retrospect.

Worse, they're earen't really any fun or interesting characters, and the main group is drawn in the most basic traits. Littlefoot is our main character, and he misses his dead mother. Cera is obnoxious, a bluff always talking about how brave and important she is and how she doesn't need anyone's help but who shrieks at the first sign of trouble. Spike is the strong, silent type, only concerned about eating and sleeping (considering Duckie adopts him as her brother, they miss the logical joke of him trying to swim like her); Petrie is too terrified to fly but finds the courage at the right time; and Duckie is Ralph Wiggum. Unlike other animated features, they rarely interact with characters outside of the T-Rex (who has no anthropomorphic personality and only has to be scary). Imagine Snow White without the Seven Dwarves, and you'll see the problem.

Reportedly, Lucas and Spielberg clamped down on Bluth, forcing him to remove the more intense and scary scenes for fear of traumatizing children. Whether restoring that footage would salvage the movie, I don't know, but the anecdote serves to point out how much  "homogenized, sanitized, and pasteurized" (to steal a line from Jim Cornette) The Land Before Time is for our safety and consumption. Still, as far as children's entertainment goes, you could do much worse, and to be fair, I remember liking this a lot more when I was a little kid. It's short, the message about working together and accepting people who are different is positive, and best of all, no song-and-dance numbers.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Troll 2

I remember watching the Bravo Channel's 100 Scariest Movie Moments and seeing the segment for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which was ranked number 5). Chainsaw is a film noted for its grim, documentary-style aesthetics, twisted humor, and nightmarish, surreal narrative. Rob Zombie described it as so convincing, it's one of the movies where you ask "Are these actors, or did (director Tobe Hooper) just find crazy people to be in a movie? But boy, these crazy people sure can act." Obviously, Zombie is being facetious to illustrate how effective and involving that landmark horror film was.

Troll 2 (1990), on the other hand, had to have been made by the clinically insane; there's no other explanation for how bad this movie is. No one with any grounding in everyday reality could have been convinced at any point during production they were in any way crafting a competent movie. The dialogue is atrocious, the acting bottom of the barrel, the production values cheap, the story nonsensical, and the direction flat, uninteresting, and misguided.

It's actually a mystery why this movie is called Troll 2; it bears no connection to the first Troll movie (a 1986 flick starring, of all people, Michael Moriarty, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, and Sonny Bono), and the creatures central to the plot are identified exclusively as goblins. The goal of the goblins, who live in the town of Nilbog and maintain human form on occasion, is to transform a visiting family into plants so they can eat them (these goblins are vegetarians).

Looking at IMDB, apparently I'm not wrong to assert crazy folks made this movie. One of the actors, who plays a deranged shopkeeper, is said to have been on leave from a stay in a mental hospital. Director Claudio Fragasso is apparently angry to this day about the film's reputation, and at one cast reunion Q&A, he had to be escorted out of the room after crashing the event. The movie's shoot was also troublesome because the crew only spoke Italian and the actors English, and despite requests to change the awkward diction of the dialogue to something more naturally sounding, the actors were forbidden from making alterations to the script.

The dialogue either states the obvious, describing the action or forcing in exposition, or is just plain bad. The acting doesn't help, ranging from bland and un-emotive to shrill and embarrassingly campy with odd emphases on words. It's as if everyone, goblin and human, is from Mars. Here are some examples (taken, again, from IMDB):

- "They're eating her... and then they're going to eat me... OH MY GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!"

- "Otherwise, we'll be forced to kill you VIOLENTLY!"

- "Grampa Seth has been gone for more than six months now. You were at the funeral, and I know it was very difficult for you. It was also very difficult for your father and for Holly, and for me, his daughter."

The attempts at horror are laughable. We see the goblins within the first few minutes, and they are quite clearly played by dwarfs in really cheap, obvious plastic masks. There is no attempt to hide the effect or keep them in the shadows. In human form, the goblins are clearly meant to be ominous and threatening, and that involves standing around and staring at would-be victims in the most transparent of manners.The reality of the movie is just wholly unconvincing.

So much of the story is nonsensical. The main character is a young boy named Joshua trying to save his family from the goblins, and he's assisted by the spirit of his dead grandfather who knows about the threat and uses magical powers, but it's never explained why the grandfather has this power. One character in a trailer is seduced by the goblin queen with a corn on the cob (just go with it), resulting in the most baffling of (sex?) scenes in which they keep the corn between their mouths as the trailer fills with popcorn. Other scenes are confusing because the movie randomly cuts in the middle of a conversation to another in another location without any transition.

Troll 2 is bad, bottom-of-the-barrel cinema, but it's hard to deny how funny it is. In the right state of mind. this is a hilarious movie. It's so bizarre and so poorly put together, you can just sit there and laugh at how awful everything in it is. It's a train wreck of a movie, and you can't look away. Or maybe you have to be a little crazy yourself.