Sunday, March 31, 2013

Time of the Apes (1974) - MST3K Review

It’s a happy morning for two school children Johnny (Masaaki Kaji) and Caroline (Hiroko Saito). They are going to visit their uncle’s top-secret laboratory and learn about his project dealing with cryogenics. Assistant Catherine (Reiko Tokunaga) shows the kids around the laboratory, finally stopping in the room with the freezing pods. Wouldn’t you know it, the local volcano erupts and sends the three into the pods as the only safe place. Quicker than you can say Popsicle, they are frozen and awake to find themselves in a world where Apes have evolved into men!

They escape a laboratory and make for Green Mountain, where they encounter a lone human named Godo (Tetsuya Ushio) who decides to help them. Along the way they meet the helpful ape child Pepe (Kazue Takita) and attempt to escape the evil Chief Gebar (Baku Hatakeyama). What follows are chases, escapes, deception, double crosses, a flying saucer and a startling revelation that could change everything. Will Johnny, Caroline and Catherine ever escape from the Time of the Apes?

Movie Review:
Chief Gebar pretends he's General Patton.
When it comes to science fiction movie milestones there are always a certain set of films that get mentioned. One of those is Planet of the Apes, the film that pitted Charleton Heston against gun toting ape-men. Of course there was a whole lot more going on in it, including some social commentary that helped turn the first film into a classic (the sequels… not so much). It’s not hard to imagine that this film inspired moviemakers across the globe. This is one of those “inspired” films.

Well let’s back up a bit. This is another one of those “movies” that is really a severely edited version of a television show. The series was called Saru no Gundan translated to “Army of the Apes” which actually fits the film pretty well. This series ran for 26 episodes each about 30 minutes long. That means a story that ran for 780 minutes is condensed down to roughly 97 minutes of a “movie”. The end result just barely manages to make any sense at all.

Yes, Time of the Apes was brought to us by Sandy Frank - the same gentleman who brought us Fugitive Alien and the Gamera translations. On the one hand you want to thank him for exposing us to some classic Japanese films and series. On the other, you wonder if the hack job on these was worth it. With so much editing, chopping and jumping around, the movie plays like a fever dream of endless chases and escapes. You loose track of why the characters are doing anything, and just sit there thinking, “Well it’s all going to make sense in the end, right?” And in some warped surreal way it does all make sense. But it requires the logical mind to shut down and bask in the ape fantasy that abounds in front of you.

Caroline, Johnny and Catherine awake to an ape filled time.
Visually Time of the Apes looks like what you’d expect from a television series from the 1970s with a limited budget attempting to mimic Planet of the Apes. Most of the ape-men end up looking pretty hilarious in masks that don’t flex of bend correctly for speaking purposes. There’s lots of ridiculous pantomime combined with some hilarious outfits. Some of the apes are dressed like Japanese humans of the 1970s. So Pepe is running around in jeans and sneakers, while Chief Gebar appears to be modeled after General Patton. Then there are the apes wearing elaborate fop outfits, or dressed like Colonel Sanders.

The style of the film is also typical of the period. You get lots of crazy editing, rapid-fire zooms and frantic action scenes. It keeps things exciting, sure, but it also adds to the confusion. If anything, the film seems a bit ahead of its time with the speed at which it moves. It’s hard to tell if this was part of the production in 1974 or the editing job in 1987.

Mostly the dubbing is pretty god awful, but in truth you only really notice it when the humans are speaking. The ape masks are so poor that no matter what language they are speaking, the dubbing would look off. Those mouths barely move. The dub voice actors are mostly of the over the top variety, with Chief Gebar chewing the audio scenery. The gasping and moaning sounds as perverse as it normally does, but that is expected in dubs from this era.

Pepe: ape-boy, ape-girl or owl?
I did like the zesty peppy music used in Time of the Apes. There’s some cool 70s guitar work in there as well as some very prog sounding synths. Although some of it was tracked very poorly. Peppy music is synched to dramatic or tense scenes and vice versa. This happened in Fugitive Alien as well, so I suspect that this may have been a side effect of the poor dubbing job. But then again, who knows for sure.

Also difficult to judge is the acting in general. You can tell this is a show aimed at kids, so things are played pretty broadly. The pantomiming apes and overly expressive children can be ridiculous at times. And combined with the poor dubbing it is just a hilarious mess.

Even without Mystery Science Theater on board, this movie would be a blast to watch. It moves quickly, is filled to bursting with odd visuals and has plenty of action, running and hiding to keep you interested. As long as you don’t try to figure out what is going on, a viewer has a prime riffing feature to enjoy. But why not let Joel and the bots to the heavy lifting here.

Episode Review:  
Godo attempts to protect the only other humans
Season three of the series was known for it’s Japanese films and the great riffing they got. Time of the Apes is really one of my favorites. I think I enjoy Fugitive Alien a tiny bit more, but only because the story makes a tiny bit more sense.

This movie was actually riffed on twice by the crew. The first time was during the KTMA run of the show. Everyone remembered how much fun they had with the show, so they asked Comedy Central to get the rights. They tackled this one fairly early in the season and really seemed to be firing on all cylinders.

Everything is game for them, from the hilarious dubbing and editing, to the costumes and odd plot contrivances. Katherine, Johnny and Caroline do a lot of ducking into hallways and hiding and alcoves. The ape troops walk right by and never see them. After a while Joel wonders “Doesn’t anyone have peripheral vision in this movies?”

Chief Gebar wants you to make his day.
They also work “monkey” and “ape” into many of the riffs turning this into a very punny episode. On a quick zoom up to Godo as he aims a gun at the ape troops Tom says, “Steven Segal in ‘Shock the Monkey’”.  Or when a guard is knocked senseless by Godo in a later scene Crow quips, “It’s bed time for Bonzo.” There’s also an entire bevy of poop flinging jokes. One of my favorites is as the ape president drives up to his headquarters; there are a whole mess of soldiers out front that snap to attention. Tom wonders if they will offer a 21-crap salute.

Early in Time of the Apes when Johnny’s mother worries about the minor tremor might lead to a bigger quake, she whines and asks Johnny not to go to the lab with Caroline. Johnny turns to his mother and is dubbed in a perky peppy way saying, “I don’t care!” This inspires endless running jokes offering Johnny plenty of things he should care about, or having him answer “I don’t care” to just about anything. I love when Johnny triggers a trap on Green Mountain and is about to be skewered. Joel says, “I bet you care now!”

Really that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This episode is packed with classic riffing. One of my favorite sequences is a single minute of zooms, gasps, moans and more zooms. The boys riff this perfectly. I wasn’t able to find just that scene, but watch the first minute of the clip below to see that sequence. It’s easily one of the highlights of season 3.

Crow is supposed be Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow.
The host segments are pretty fun. Things start off with Joel and the bots attempting to play some baseball. But it all goes wrong when they break and window and create a hull breach. For the invention exchange, Joel creates the cellulite phone. This pink phone expands as you order take out to remind you to stay on your diet. The mad scientists create the Miracle Grow Baby Formula that will grow your baby faster in less time. It works too well. At the first break, Joel and bots present a short film about why Johnny doesn’t care. It’s gets pretty dark actually. The next break goes silly, as Joel and the bots attempt to recreate the Scopes Monkey Trial from Inherit the Wind. A standee of Judge Wapner is a special guest. The fashions of the apes inspire Crow to present spring fashions based on the film. It’s pretty hilarious stuff. When the film ends, Joel and the bots sing a song based on the music of the end credits. It describes about how “Sandy Frank is the source of our pain”.

Time of the Apes is one of the best episodes of Season three and well worth seeking out. The fast paced movie, combined with some excellent riffing and fun host segments make this one of my favorite episodes from the Comedy Central years.

I give it five ape filled zooms out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXII. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

When this film came out in 1995 there was a strong belief that it would be the game changer for Japanese animation in North America. The film was going to generate word of mouth and end up a smash hit. Folks would be lining up to see it and anime would be lifted from the stigma of being ultraviolent almost porn for adults. Well it didn’t quite turn out that way. It would take a few more years and a little show called Pokemon to do that. Instead, Ghost in the Shell became a cult favorite for film buffs, and an excellent science fiction film that anime fans loved diving into.

In the near future Major Motoko Kusanagi (Mimi Woods) is in charge of a Special Forces unit that fights cybernetic terrorists. To deal with this technological threat, her team is comprised of heavy artillery, cutting edge technology and even full cyborg bodies. They finds themselves up against a very dangerous criminal who calls himself the Puppet Master (Abe Lasser).

The Puppet Master can hack into people’s brains and use them as pawns to achieve his ends. Kusanagi’s team does their best to track down the real criminal, but keep running into puppets and dead ends. When a break in the case occurs, clues point to another government agency possibly at work behind the puppet master. Kusanagi will have to use all her skills to determine the identity of The Ghost in the Shell.

Good Points:
  • A thought provoking science fiction story
  • Impressive visuals in both the action scenes and quiet moments
  • Never plays down to the audience

Bad Points:
  • Can get a touch over-philosophical
  • Moves at a very slow pace
  • A combination of violence and nudity (but no sex) will alienate some viewers 

Any fans of thinking science fiction films need to see Ghost in the Shell. A single viewing is enough to get the story and basic ideas down, but the film rewards multiple viewings with its depth of visuals and atmosphere. Those looking for lots of action will be disappointed. But the film is certainly a landmark for animation in the 1990s and inspired many anime series and films like The Matrix.

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

In Depth Review
Major Kusanagi about to jump into action.
I find Ghost in the Shell to be difficult to write about. The film has so much going on in it. To really do it justice and dive deeply into the imagery, themes and story would require more time than I have and more patience than most readers want to give. Besides, it’s much better if you watch the film yourself and make up your own mind about the film.

I’ll touch on the key points on why this film remains on my top ten science fiction film list.

There are two main contributors to the film. Masamune Shirow created the original graphic novel that this movie is based on. Then you have Mamoru Oshii, the director who has a very unique visual style and sense of pacing. In the end you get a combination of Shirow’s world though Oshii’s eyes. The result works surprisingly well. Shirow’s wacky sense of humor is toned down but Oshii took key elements from the graphic novel and used them for the main plot of the film. This makes the film version of Ghost in the Shell very different from the original manga and the television series that came afterward.

Was the puppet captured or is this the master?
Oshii’s films all tend to be deliberately paced, allowing the viewer to really delve into the atmosphere of the worlds he creates. The film is filled with long shots, methodical pans, slow zooms and entire sequences without dialogue. Beyond showing off the animation, these scenes also give the viewers a better sense of the setting, and the mood of the characters.

This contrasts with the action scenes in Ghost in the Shell where Oshii keeps things moving. There are three set pieces in the film. You have the opening sequence with the assassination of a diplomat that literally explodes in several different ways. The next sequence involves the chasing a hacker who uses armor piercing rounds and has camouflage that renders him invisible. There’s some good tension building here as the hacker attempts to elude his pursuers. The final sequence involves Major Kusanagi attempting to stop a cyborg tank with minimal weapons and no back up.

Each scene combines fast action with long takes and slow pans. Creating a disconnect that actual makes the tension work well. Kusanagi’s battle against the tank is intense. It becomes apparent that she has almost no chance of surviving. There are moments when the screen seems to remain static as the tank waits for her next attack and all he we hear is the rain falling and the atmospheric musical score.

Water and grime in the futuristic cityscape
In 1995 Ghost in the Shell was at state of the art for animation. Computers were just beginning to make their presence felt. Many of the displays and computer interfaces in the film were created by computer graphics. On the other hand you get some amazing hand drawn backgrounds, with the unnamed Asian city (some folks have decided it is Hong Kong) coming to life before you eyes. It’s a dirty city that always seems to have some kind of moisture flowing around it. One of my favorite scenes is the mid-film montage featuring Kusanagi on a boat trip down a canal and watching the activity around her. The detail here is amazing and does so much to create a melancholy, vaguely oppressive feel to the city. It’s cool greens and blues feeling almost alienating.

Water imagery is abundant in the film. The opening scene features windows that appear to be a giant aquarium. The opening credits show the creation of a cyborg with the body being created while immersed in fluid. Following scenes feature rainfall, sanding puddles, not to mention scenes occurring on boats. As I mentioned it creates a melancholy feel to the film, but there’s also a thematic idea here. The term “flow of information” is used several times in the film. The constant motion of the water, and its ever-present state mirror the idea of information surrounding us and flowing between us. Or maybe there is other symbolism here that I’m not aware of.

Kusanagi reflects literally and figuratively
Finally a note about the character design, Oshii opted for a more realistic look to all the characters. It’s easy to see Shirow’s influence on the looks, but here the large eyes, small mouth look has been greatly modified to create much more realistic characters. This actually adds to the impact of the story dealing with humans and beings that are nearly all machine but with (supposedly) human brains inside them.  You don’t usually see this type of design outside of horror anime, but for some, the final message of this film may be horrifying.

Sound work in Ghost in the Shell is solid and immersive as well. Most of what you hear is standard city noise, rainfall and the hum of computers. Actions scenes us a solid variety of sounds for the gunfire, explosions and cyborg hand to hand combat. It doesn’t stand out as anything too innovative, but it creates a familiar world, just a short jog into the our future

The cyborg tank rages against the machine
Prolific anime composer Kenji Kawai wrote the score. For the most part it is an atmospheric affair, focused on creating and sustaining a mood. There are no themes, and at times it seems to simply be the same set of notes repeating in an endless pattern. However, it is very effective in the film, adding to the scenes by creating a pulse behind them, or touching on the revelations with a well placed choir.

In addition there is a song used three times in the film. I blogged a little about it here. It’s very unique in style and has been known to annoy the hell out of some viewers. But to me it adds to the character of the film. It also changes slightly each time it is used, reaching its most complete form in the end credits.

Bateau shares beer and philosophy with Kusanagi
Unfortunately one of the weakest elements is the English voice acting. You get some solid performances, especially by Richard George as Bateau and William Frederick as Aramaki. But there’s a few folks who are too over the top, and pull you out of the film. Unfortunately the key performance of Kusanagi by Mimi Woods is just plain off. I’m not sure what they were going for, but Woods keeps her performance as Kusanagi very cold. Perhaps this was an attempt to mirror the Japanese voice actress. However she sounds more wooden and uncomfortable than anything else. Woods is a capable voice actress and did a great job in El Hazard as the fire priestess Shayla Shayla. I just think the part wasn’t a good fit for her and she ends up distracting instead of pulling you into the story. For that reason, I recommend seeing the film in Japanese as well as English to get the full impact.

The script is also slightly different between the two versions. Viewing the film in English first will allow a viewer who isn’t fluent in Japanese to absorb the visuals as well as the story. But the translation is different enough from the subtitled version to cause some viewers concern about which is the closest to the original version. The Japanese version seems a bit more oblique in some ways, and yet feels truer to the spirit of the film. The English version seems like it was made to cater to a more action movie oriented crowd. It is fair to say that the dialogue in both versions contains sequences that seem out of place, but will end up having an impact later in the story. One of my favorite examples is a conversation between Kusanagi and one of her team members. They talk about how cyborgs are limited by their artificial bodies. They can act according to the peramiters set by the manufacturers. A pure human is not limited in that way, and provides a necessary variable in the team, keeping the whole unit effective and unpredictable. This mirrors a conversation between the Puppet Master and Kusanagi at the end of the film.

The Major melts into the world around her
It’s elements like that that make Oshii’s direction of the film most impressive. The film is layered in so many different ways. It rewards repeat viewings as well as reflection and discussion on what you’ve seen and understood. This isn’t to say that Ghost in the Shell is overly complex or difficult to follow. It is actually a pretty straightforward story. But the more you put into watching it the more you get out of it. It’s one of the reasons I return to it so frequently, and put it not only in the top tier of anime along with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Spirited Away and Millennium Actress, but also in my favorite science fiction films.  The film was eventually followed by a sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and a television series. But for me this movie is one of the may be the most effective incarnation of the story.  

Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008)
Everything you see here is computer generated.
At some point director Mamoru Oshii decided to revisit his 1995 film and make some changes. Now I know what you’re thinking. He was going to go all George Lucas on the films and fill them needless additions and re-edit the film to suit some kind of master vision.

Well the answer is yes and no.

For the most part Ghost in the Shell 2.0 is the same film as the 1995 version. It flows the same way, has all the same scenes, tells the same story and explores the same themes. And yet the experience is slightly different in its updated version.

Two big changes were made. One was the addition of computer-generated sequences replacing two traditionally animated sequences. All the shots, angles, and imagery are exactly the same. The CG additions also spread to the computer screen and virtual reality interfaces used in the film. These have been replaced by more dynamic visuals, ones that look closer to the images used in the follow up film Innocence.

I don’t mind the updates to the computer screens and VR interfaces. What looked high tech in 1995 does look a bit simplistic and dated now. But that is always a problem with any science fiction film that focuses on technology. It doesn’t hurt the story of flow, so it’s just a simple change.

Now the replacement of sequences with CG counterparts is a bit tougher to reconcile. I believe this was done for two reasons. They wanted to make the cityscape shots and vehicle scenes look more realistic with computer images. And second, they figured they might was well throw in a CG Kusanagi in there for funsies.

A new life form looks upon a Tang colored world.
But the result is an odd disconnect between this full CG version of Kusanagi in two scenes to the hand drawn version in the rest of the film. It leaves the viewer wondering what happened, instead of pulling the viewer into the story and the world. The film’s chilly style can be a turnoff for some viewers, but this strangeness might be the nail in the coffin for some viewers, who will end up focusing on the reasons behind the switch in animation styles, instead of the story and themes.

The other change is something that seems small, but actually affects the tone of the film. The 1995 film used lots of blues, dark greens and purples to create a cool color pallet. In the update, oranges and yellows have replaces nearly all the light and computer screens in the film. I think this was to match the look closer to Innocence. Unfortunately this adds a warmth to the film that feels out of place. The coolness of the overtly technological world fits this vision better. It’s not a deal breaker, but it feels wrong especially when you’ve seen the 1995 version first.

I suggest starting with the original cut from 1995. Check out the 2.0 upgrade if you’re curious. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Ghost City - Ghost in the Shell

When it comes to Ghost in the Shell, the score by Kenji Kawai is mostly atmospheric, atonal material. It does a great job creating mood in the film, but isn't something you sit back and enjoy at home. 

However, the vocal piece used three times in the film is one of the most memorable tracks of anime music of the 1990s. This song comes in three different lengths, with slight variations of tempo, and vocal accompaniment. Each time it is used, we are allowed to focus on images and the music without dialogue: opening credits, mid-movie montage and end credits. It is performed in an archaic Japanese style that contrasts vividly with high tech images on screen - and yet it reaches to the core of the ancient question. Who am I?

Here is the version used during the mid-film montage, called "Ghost City".

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nostalgia Nugget - Welcome to the Jungle

A couple years ago I tried to figure out if the adventure genre film was dead. That blog was inspired by reviewing the Tarzan movies. I managed to see Tarzan the Ape Man a few days after revisiting Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now that I've wrapped up eight Tarzan flicks from the Weissmuller era, I was wondering, what happened to all the jungle flicks? Was this a product of the time, or is Tarzan like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula - we'll just keep seeing reincarnations of these flicks time and again.

The answer seems to be, a bit of both actually.

Jungle films seemed to be a staple of Hollywood from the the 1920s all the way up to the 1950s or so. After a while, people just weren't coming in droves to see what happens in darkest Africa when you send some guys in pith helmets to search for fortune and glory. Tarzan films were a dime a dozen at the time. Sure Weissmuller was the most popular, but you also had Lex Barker and Gordon Scott playing the role after Weissmuller left. There were also classics like Jungle Goddess from 1948 and Queen of the Amazons from 1947.

But the jungle flick had pretty much disappeared by the time I was heading to the movies. There wasn't room for these types of films in the experimental 60s or gritty 70s. Escapism has pretty much been cornered by James Bond, and the closest he got the jungle was in Live and Let Die

I think part of it was that the darkness of Africa was no longer considered a frontier. Instead, the news was showing us the all to grim realities of Africa, and the romance was effectively shattered. On top of that, the treatment of the native people could no longer be reduced to the classic timid baggage carriers and blood thirsty cannibals. Jungle movies just couldn't survive in that type of environment.

That did not kill Tarzan. It seems like every decade gets a film or two about Burrough's most famous creation. Partially, I think it is because the Weissmuller films did create a powerful impression on people. Hell, I think most folks can identify the Tarzan call, even if they've never seen a Tarzan movie from the '30s or '40s. But Tarzan is seen as a recognizable name, something that may pull people in. Because if Tarzan promises anything, it's a muscular guy running around in a loincloth.

One of the big catalysts for a group of jungle flicks was the huge box office for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. Not only did this film influence a bunch of low budget immitations. But it also forced James Bond to switch gears, leading to the very Indiana Jones styled Octopussy. But suddenly, the old fashioned adventure film seemed like it could bring in the bucks, and why not just resurrect the most classic of these films. 

That brought us the wonderfully ridiculous Tarzan the Ape Man (also 1981) with Bo Derek as Jane, and none other than Miles O'Keeffe as the shirtless wonder himself. O'Keeffe would go on to play Ator in films like Cave Dwellers but really Tarzan is an afterthought in this movie. Mostly it's about director John Derek filming his wife Bo in as many stages of undress as he could. Oh and John Philip Law is in the film too, and if memory serves he's only slightly more subtle here than he was in Space Mutiny.

If you must check out a Tarzan flick from the 1980s, then go for the interesting Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. This movie gives us an origin story for Tarzan and plays the whole thing very straight. Christopher Lambert does a solid job as the ape man. But the film also includes roles for Ian Holm and Ralph Richardson. The movie ends up being more of a drama, than a typical jungle adventure, but its an interesting twist on the story.

But if you really want some laughable fun (and the thought of Bo Derek running around half naked just isn't working for you). Then you can always go for the hilariously silly Sheena from 1984. Future Bond girl Tanya Roberts galavants around summoning animals and saving the jungle from evil white mercenaries. While it sticks close to the spirit of Tarzan, the entire thing is mostly cheesecake, hilarious acting and a bad movie lovers dream come true. 

By the time the 1990s rolled around, the jungle movie was gone again. But there was a small exception. Again it was because of Spielberg and one of his blockbusters. Jurassic Park was a huge hit in 1993, and it made the work of writer Michael Crichton hot. Many of his books were rushed into theaters during the '90s including Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun and The 13th Warrior (which was an adaptation of his novel Eaters of the Dead). None of them quite met the popularity of the his dinosaurs run amok story. 

One of the films was Congo in 1995. This flick actually sticks pretty close to the classic jungle movie mold. You've got your white hunters penetrating the jungle searching for treasure. While the book itself was a fun read, the translation to screen was ridiculous. You have scenes with a gorilla using sign language to speak, which is based on fact. But in the film she wears what looks like the old Nintendo Power Glove, that translates her sign language into a digitized voice. Combine that with a wonderful scene of Laura Linney blowing away guys in ape suits with a laser cannon and you've got riffing gold. 

In an odd twist of fate it was Disney who brought us a Tarzan flick for the '90s. Their animated adaptation of Burroghs book was promoted by the use of cutting edge computer animation (for 1999), Rosie O'Donnell as the voice of a pompadoured ape, and songs by Phil Collins. At the time of it's release, the film was well received, but these days seems to be one of the forgotten films form Disney's animated cannon.

Actually this wasn't the last of the Tarzan incarnations. 1998 gave us Tarzan and the Lost City. Supposedly closer to the Burroughs novels than any of the previous incarnations, we get Casper Van Dein (of Starship Troopers fame). While this was probably timed to preempt the Disney film (and grab some of it's potential income), the film wasn't much more than a blip in the box office and home video. Once again it appeared that Tarzan was well and truly dead.

Except now I'm hearing that there is a new Tarzan flick in the works, one that will start off a whole new franchise if it is successful. I'm not sure if the creators are hoping the hard bombing of John Carter was just a fluke, or if this got scuttled because of the failure of that Burroughs property. What it boils down to is that the ape man may  be immortal. If so, that means the jungle adventure movie may once again return to the big screen.

And for your enjoyment, one of my favorite ridiculous scenes from Congo. I love how Jerry Goldsmith's score is working overtime to make this whole thing less silly than it really is.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946)

Here we are, my final review of a Tarzan movie from the Weissmuller era. Yeah there were a few more made after this, but the sets I received contained only eight flicks, and I think I’ve seen the best the series has to offer. Does that mean this film ends my reviews on a high note, or is this the lowest point?

While Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) is on a shopping trip with Jane (Brenda Joyce) in the village of Zambesi, a horribly injured man arrives on an elephant. He’s been ripped up by horrible claws and claims the caravan that he was on was destroyed by a pack of bloodthirsty leopards. Tarzan is skeptical, because the wounds are claws only, and any good ape-man knows that leopards will bite their prey as well.

Soon a hunting expedition is organized to track down the leopards, and much to Tarzan’s chagrin, a whole mess of leopards are caught and killed. But Tarzan is correct; the whole thing is a ruse. A tribe of Leopard worshiping cultists is determined to destroy any semblance of civilization in the jungle. Their priestess, the lovely Lea (Acquanetta) has her sights set on our favorite jungle family. Will anyone survive unscathed in the battle between Tarzan and the Leopard Woman?

Good Points:
  • Tarzan is back in action with this film
  • The character of Kimba creates an interesting twist on villainy
  • The villains in general are a refreshing change of pace

Bad Points:
  • The antics of Cheetah come back with a vengeance
  • Contains some of goofiest moments in any of the Tarzan films
  • Jane is even more useless in this film

This is a definite improvement over the tepid Tarzan and the Amazons. Tarzan gets to use his strength and wits in several action scenes. Boy even gets in on the action when Jane becomes the target of a cultist. Unfortunately the leopard tribes’ outfits are so silly that it makes them look less than threatening. The leopard hunt is also unintentionally funny. With that said, it’s not a bad way to spend a lazy Sunday.

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

In Depth Review
Tarzan saves a bevy of beauties this time around.
When it comes to Tarzan and the Leopard Woman you have equal parts goofy with equal parts adventure. There are some unusual elements to the plot and execution of this film. At the same time it is missing some of the key elements that made the earlier films so entertaining. In a way, it’s a middle of the road entry, and yet it’s also one that can be a lot of fun if you look at it the right way.

The jungle family from the previous film has returned, but there’s a bit more meat for everyone to chew on in this film. Weissmuller is back to the running, jumping and fighting that we expect. An exciting sequence has him attempting to rescue a band of young women from the deranged leopard cultists. It allows Weissmuller to show off his swimming, swinging and fighting techniques. But Tarzan also uses his brain to set up traps for the pursuers and use the jungle to his advantage. With the lack of jungle adventure in the previous two films this was a welcome bit of fun. The only thing missing is the traditional Tarzan call to summon his animal friends. Either this was considered cliché, or the call was owned by MGM and RKO couldn’t use it.

Boy doesn't trust Kimba, who is obviously not a white lion.
Boy and Jane get more to do in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, when they meet Kimba (Tommy Cook). This young man is about Boy’s age. He’s lost in the jungle and happens upon the family. Jane and Boy take to Kimba pretty quickly, but Tarzan senses something wrong about the lad. Of course, Tarzan is right, Kimba is a member of the leopard tribe and he has his sights set on killing Jane.

What follows is one of the most surprising elements of the film, an obviously homicidal and sociopathic young man plotting the demise of a woman who is treating him like a son. Cook does a good job playing the part, his eyes going cold when he thinks no one is watching him, and his friendliness coming across a bit strained. Eventually Boy figures out what is going on and attacks Kimba just as he’s about to murder Jane.

Tarzan and Jane go shopping... SHOPPING!
What follows is a hand-to-hand battle between Boy and Kimba. And once again the writers for Jane have no idea what to do with her. Instead of leaping to Boy’s aid, or trying to get help, Jane stands there and frets and gasps. Yes, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman offers no change the suburban mom portrayal of Jane. It’s easy to say Brenda Joyce is the problem, but I don’t think it’s the case. She’s playing the role she was given. And if that means going on a shopping trip with Tarzan in the opening moments of the movie – well then that’s what we get.

That brings me to the element of the film that keeps it from really taking off. There are some amazingly goofy visuals in this movie. The first is the entire shopping trip sequence. Seeing Tarzan in his loincloth and Jane in her jungle garb wandering around a bizarre and haggling for items is just plain odd. I kept waiting for Jane to hand Tarzan her purse while she tried on tunic. Of course some of this is played for laughs (especially the scenes with Boy and Cheetah getting into mischief with a snake charmer). But the visual oddity of it makes you wonder how much director Kurt Neumann was in on the joke.

Time for beddie bye with these cute leopard pajamas.
But the real humdinger here is the whole leopard cult. From Lea’s high priestess outfit, to the flailing about during the ceremonies to the assassin garb the leopard killers use – well it’s all pretty silly looking. The men end up looking hilarious in what almost appears to be leopard footy pajamas with sharp claws on the ends. Kimba’s killer outfit is the best, because it actually includes a mask over the eyes making him look even funnier. It is impossible to take any of the scenes seriously when these guys are running around.

The other element of comedy in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is the leopard hunt itself. To throw Tarzan and the community of Zambesi off the scent of the cult, the villains actually unleash a group of leopards on the hunting party. This convinces the folks of Zambesi (and Boy and Jane) that real leopards were responsible for the lost caravan, and makes Tarzan look like an idiot for believing otherwise. It’s actually a pretty clever ruse by the villains. If only the leopards didn’t look so obviously stuffed. During this action climax hilarity ensues as stuffed leopards are tossed around at folks (with some footage of real leopards mixed in). These plushies seems to have strawberry preserves on their paws and they end up getting everyone they touch all messy with jam. Tarzan manages to tap some of them with his knife and that knocks them over long enough to save some of more important members of the hunting party. But in the end you just want to know if all the strawberry jam was used for toast or maybe a PBJ.

This poor man is terribly allergic to plush toys
and strawberry jam.
These moments make Tarzan and the Leopard Woman one of the most unintentionally funny Tarzan flicks I’ve seen. This is actually perfect for a movie riffing night. You also get the scenes where Tarzan is tied to a wooden pole while the leopard priestess threatens to hurt him… and well… the riffing just writes itself.

But there is an interesting serious side to the film. Of all eight of the Tarzan films I’ve seen, this is the first one to actually not feature the white civilized man as the primary enemy. Instead we have a cult of leopard worshipers who think nothing of killing women and children to get what they want. But what doe they want?

Here is the irony, the leopard cult actually wants what Tarzan has always stood for – to leave the jungle and it’s people and animals untouched. The leopard tribe fears that the white influence in the town of Zambesi will spread into the jungle and destroy their way of life. To protect their culture they attack caravans, attempt to murder a group of young teachers, and then attack Tarzan’s family.

Tarzan and the Temple of Doom?
What is strange is that Tarzan takes the side of the white civilization in this film. Much like Jane, who’s been completely suburban-ified. Tarzan has been turned into a defender of civilization – not the jungle. It’s an interesting twist, one that is made personal once Kimba attempts to kill Jane and Boy. Once that happens, Tarzan takes the gloves off. He literally wipes out the entire tribe by causing a cave in that crushes them all. Only the two traitors Kimba and Lazar (who pretended to be helping the commissioner of the village) survive, but just long enough to kill each other. The message here may be that savagery consumes and destroys itself.

To add another layer to the whole thing, the shining example of white imperial civilization in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is in the form of the Commissioner (Dennis Hoey). This man is portrayed as clueless, stuck up, lost, befuddled and just plain moronic from the moment we see him. It’s all played for laughs, but you wonder why Tarzan would help this guy out, when in previous films someone like the Commissioner would be the first one to be eaten by lions. On the flip side you have Lazar (Edgar Barrier) who is capable, clever and resourceful (but also a bit full of himself). He’s the villain, but he feels more like the typical ally in one of these films.

I can’t decide if this switch is an attempt to break up the standard plot and give the whole thing a bit of freshness. Or maybe it was a conscious effort to make Tarzan more suitable to the times. Instead of fighting civilization, he is now defending it, a hero closer to the hearts of those folks in 1946, instead of the one who was born in Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932.

The Leopard woman is holding one hell of  a
back scratcher.
As far as production values go, this film looks a little better than Tarzan and the Amazons. There’s a bit more outdoor locations used, and the action scenes are filmed and edited well, building on each other. The chase scene is handled really well, and could have come from one of the better MGM flicks. The musical score by Paul Sawtell is typical golden age style scoring for an adventure flick. It contains lots of big musical moments with swelling strings and horns. Very influenced by the work done by Max Steiner for King Kong.

What it boils down to is that you have a fun jungle adventure movie that has enough visual silliness to make it entertaining for a riffing night. It falls in the middle of the pack of eight Tarzan flicks I reviewed, the best of the lot still being Tarzan and his Mate. It was fun revisiting these flicks, and I’m sure I’ll be giving one or two of them another spin in the future.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Soundtrack Sample - Coraline - Bruno Coulais

Bruno Coulais provided a wonderful score for the film The Secret of the Kells. But the first time I heard his work was on the animated film Coraline, also from 2009. Eclectic may be selling it short, but the score for that animated film was unusual, and yet completely engaging. It combines the off beat sense of style that you usually hear in Danny Elfman with something a bit more... dare I say, French? It uses all types of instruments, electronics and unusual recording techniques. The result fits the film like a glove and makes for an unique listening experience. 

Here is a sample of one of the tracks, giving a bit of everything the score has to offer.

To add to the confusion of the score, They Might Be Giants was touted as having performed on the soundtrack. They did. You get one song that lasts 28 seconds. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Secret of the Kells (2009)

This is one of those movies that was on my radar for a while. It was nominated by the Academy Awards for best animated feature. The soundtrack by Bruno Coulais got a lot of buzz. Top it all of with the fact that it takes place in medieval times, has rampaging Vikings, irish monks and a magical book. How could that not be cool?

Brendan (Evan McGuire) is a young monk living on the small Irish island of The Kells, during the dark ages. Abbott Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is working on hard building an enormous wall around the Abby and local village. You see, Vikings have been terrorizing the coastlines, destroying everything in sight and searching for gold. The Abbots obsession with his wall leads to a demand that every monk work on building the wall and that no one leave the sanctuary under any circumstances.

Things change with the arrival of a monk named Aidan (Mick Lally), who is a master illuminator (an artist who would illustrate medieval manuscripts). Aidan wants to finish his masterpiece, a book that supposedly has mystical powers. The powers stem from the amazing artwork within. Brendan becomes fascinated with this book and Aidan. When he learns that a special berry is needed to complete the book, Brenden vows to help. But he must break the Abbots rule and sneak into the forest, which holds mysterious forest spirits. Will Brendan survive his adventure and maybe learn the mystery of The Secret of the Kells.

Good Points:
  • Animation that is beautiful in its simplicity and color
  • An excellent musical score by Bruno Coulais
  • Has a nice message about the value of art 

Bad Points:
  • The style of the animation (inspired by actual illuminated manuscripts) may not appeal to some viewers
  • The story is fairly predictable in it’s hero myth fashion
  • Anyone looking for fast paced action will be disappointed

Animation fans need to check this movie out. The visuals alone are a treat, with a distinctive style that feels like medieval manuscripts leaping off the page and onto the screen. The simple story is well told and the characters are engaging. I especially liked the wolf spirit Aisling (Christen Mooney) and the playful way she engages Brendan. A refreshing change from Hollywood and Japanese animation.

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

Here is a short clip from the film show casing some of the lovely animation and visual style.

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.