Monday, June 30, 2014

Danger! Death Ray (1967) – MST3K Review

Professor Carmichael (Tullio Altamura) has created a death ray, which he insists is for peaceful purposes. Of course evil international villains can’t let such a wholesome device go unused, so they kidnap Carmichael and spirit him away to create a death ray that they can use to burn holes in metal doors.

Hot on their heels is super cool, super suave, super keen secret agent Bart Fargo (Gordon Scott). Fargo’s main abilities appear to be failing at post kill quips and shooting cameras with a machine gun. Still, he is a ladies’ man, and he can recognize anyone who has tried to murder him in the past – which turns out to be half of Europe. Fargo travels to Rome, Barcelona and then to a mysterious villa in search of Carmichael. But enemy agents are everywhere, and even the hot babes like Lucille (Delfi Mauro) and Mrs. Carver (Silvia Solar) may be playing for both sides. Does Fargo have any hope of saving the day, bedding the girl and killing the bad guy? Or will he end up burned up into a curly fry by the Danger! Death Ray.

Movie Review:
The name is Fargo. Bart Fargo.
Bond Mania was in full swing in the late 1960s. The year 1967 alone gave us two James Bond films: You Only Live Twice and the parody Casino Royale. But it also unleashed Sean Connery’s brother Neil in OperationDouble 007. Into this maelstrom of spy mania came this fine film, Danger! Death Ray. It seemed like there was another spy knockoff coming out every other week in the late sixties. Every studio felt they had the James Bond formula down and were ready to milk it for all it was worth. Really, how hard could it be? Just grab a guy who looks good in a tux, have him run around with a gun, seducing babes and punching bad guys. Throw in a crazy plot to rule the world and it will all work, right?

But as Danger! Death Ray proves, it really wasn’t that simple. You’ve got to have a lead actor who can pull off the James Bond panache. Scott just doesn’t seem to be the right fit. He looks fine in the tux, but he doesn’t have the smooth charm or the rugged toughness that he was obviously scripted to have. Instead of letting him do his own version of a secret agent, they wanted him to do Sean Connery as 007. It just doesn’t work, especially when the script fails to give him any memorable lines, or any real personality.

Lincoln moves in the for the kill!
Most of the classic Bond films have a classic villain, right? Goldfinger, Largo, Bloefeld, Dr. No. Even Operation Double 007 had Mr. Thayer as a decent antagonist. Danger! Death Ray can’t manage it. We get the evil Mr. Carver (Alberto Dalbes), who is barely in the film. In fact, I had no idea who the ringleader of the plot was until the second half of the movie. Not because of any suspense or tension created by the plot, but because it was so muddled that it wasn’t clear who was running the show. We see a lot of Frank (Nello Pazzafini), but it is obvious he is a henchman. Carver becomes the main bad guy by default, because he is pretty much the only guy left at the end of the movie. We never hear why he wants a dangerous death ray, or why he is so damn murderous, he just is, Ok! Frank at least has a more menacing feel to him, and probably should have been the actual mastermind. Keen eyed fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will recognize Pazzafini. He has been in a ton of films that served as riffing fodder. He usually plays the big bulky guy, but he gets some lines in Cave Dwellers as the leader of the snake cult.

Honey Rider, she is not.
At least the ladies don’t let us down. Silvia Solar heats it up as Mrs. Carver, the seductress who attempts to entangle Fargo, but doesn’t deceive him in the least. While she’ll never measure up to Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye or Fiona Volpe from Thunderball, she’s not bad. Delfi Mauro plays Lucille as the ditzy artist who runs into Fargo by accident and falls for him completely. She’s cute and perky, and gets naked pretty quickly. So you kinda figure she’ll end up with Bart Fargo at the end.

The score to Danger! Death Ray seems promising at first. It’s got a quirky fun title them with some Morricone inspired female vocals and a jazzy jaunty feel that works fine for an airy James Bond lite film. There is also piece that is a bit more funky jazz that accompanies some of the chase scenes. Mike and bots point out that it sounds a bit like Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock, and I gotta give it to them. Both pieces are a lot of fun and are actually pretty darn catchy. But they seem to be just about the only two pieces in the whole movie. Because they are so distinctive you recognize them immediately. After you hear them for the 10th time (I’m not exaggerating here) they really wear out their welcome. You start laughing because you can’t believe they are using the same pieces again.

"Das toy boat."
Well even if the music fails, at least there are action scenes. Most of them are your basic fistfights:  nothing terribly exciting. Fargo does participate in a foot chase in the Forum in Rome. There is also a scene where he is chased around an apartment complex. One of my favorite moments is when he tries to sneak into the villa and ends up running into every guard in the place, but manages to knock them all out and stuff them in a closet. His stealth skills are ridiculously honed and that closet must be huge. The finale features Fargo searching the villa for the evil Carver. Armed with a machine gun, Fargo shoots and shoots and shoots his way to the secret lair. The villa is filled with hidden machine guns and cameras, but Fargo has no problems with them, as long as he gleefully blows them all away.

But the highlights of the action scenes in Danger! Death Ray are the vehicle sequences. There is a daring escape by helicopter, a submarine rendezvous and a spectacular car plummet from a high cliff into the ocean. Sounds great. Except all of these are executed with miniatures and models. All of them are done with low quality models, hell, I’ll be honest here. They look like toys. None of the scale works. The submarine looks like it was filmed in a bathtub, and the car crash is hilarious. The low budget certainly shows in this film.

"Oh no, Danger! Death Ray is on. I hate that movie."
But a low budget shouldn’t excuse bad writing. The plot is really a mess. Moments of comedy are clunky at best. There is no motivation for the characters. The villains do things for almost no reason at all. Bart Fargo just kind of wanders into plot points when he needs to. It really feels like this whole production was rushed, especially when you see the ridiculous editing of the final shot of the movie. Honestly did anyone care how this looked, or were they in such a huge hurry to cash in on James Bond that even a completely botched edit would make the cut?

There is enough ineptitude on display to make this film worth watching for bad movie fans. The scenes with the miniature vehicles are laugh out loud funny. Some of the dubbing and dialogue is extremely poor. Some lines are just nonsensical, or delivered in ways that just runs counter what you are seeing on screen. In the scheme of things, I’ve seen worse 007 rip offs, but Operation Double 007 is a masterpiece compared to this. The important question is, just how much fodder does Danger! Death Ray offer to Mike and the bots? The answer is, more than enough.

Episode Review:

Peacefully blowing up doors since 1967.
The 60s spy genre can be a rich bounty for MST3K, and they proved this with the hilarious riff on Operation Double 007. They also tackled a movie called Secret Agent Super Dragon, but that riff wasn’t quite as good. Frankly the movie is pretty dull, and that didn’t help matters. Both of those were Joel episodes, so it was time for Mike to step up, and Danger! Death Ray gives him just about all the riffing fodder he could want. The movie is watchable, but it is also ridiculously bad at times, and they boys have a blast with it.

Things get off to a great start with the opening credits. As the catchy theme song plays for the first time, Mike and the bots dance in their seats to it. As it leads up to the distinctive chorus of “Bup bada da da da”, they will stop in mid-riff so they can sing along. Tom really gets into it of course. Later when they hear the other piece, they do a similar riff where they sing Watermelon Man no matter what they are saying at the time. But as the movie continues the boys start to lose patience with the repetitive tracks. They start to dread them, and there are some very funny riffs on the music near the end.

"Bart has no quip for this touching moment."
Bart Fargo provides plenty of laughs. First off his name is just too easy to mock. He gets all kinds of creative nicknames. They also start making fun of the simple fact that he can’t deliver any quips or jokes. There are plenty of opportunities for Fargo to deliver a pithy line, but most of the time he just stands there looking a bit lost.

Mike and the bots have lots of fun with the concept of creating a death ray for peaceful purposes. Tom wants to know " the horrible types of peace they can wage with this Death Ray." They also start mocking the movies ineptitude with plotting and pacing. Crow observes that it "was an interesting choice to have no suspense in this movie". 

Then of course the boys just have a blast with all the silly shots of models attempting to pass as actual vehicles in Danger! Death Ray. Crow just starts giggling uncontrollably when the helicopter takes off, and says, “Special effects by Billy!”. When the submarine shows up, Mike says, “The ocean is beautiful in this part of the tub.” He also warns the sailors not to climb up the ladder or they might turn into action figures.

Crow is peacefully on fire.
The host segments are a mixed bag this time around. It starts off with Crow showing off his new contact lenses. These suckers make his eyes super red and watery. I always get a kick out of this, especially since I wore contact lenses for about 15 years. Frank decides to be a talent agent, and is high powered and fast-talking and wants to represent Crow! Dr. Forrester is not amused, especially when Torgo shows up for representation. At the first break Tom makes his own Death Ray, for peaceful purposes. And then he just blows away Crow, because, well you know, how can you help it when you have a death ray? When we come back Tom attempts to act as a host to This is Your Life Mike Nelson. But only Crow and Gypsy will appear on the show and ends up falling apart. The next host segment features Crow showing off his new line of Italian inspired sunglasses for men. They look a little more feminine than Tom and Mike are expecting. After the explosive finale where Bart Fargo blows away all the cameras, poor Cambot is emotionally scarred and wont’ stop crying. Mike and bots try to cheer him up, and read some fan letters.

Danger! Death Ray is one of my favorite episodes of season six. The movie is wonderfully bad, the riffing is really hilarious and the whole crew seems to be at the top of their game. Only some weak host segments keep this from being a top tier episode. When it comes to James Bond rip off riffing, this is the one to seek out. Just beware of that catchy theme music.

I give it four death rays out of five, but only used for peaceful purposes.

And now enjoy the music of Danger! Death Ray.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXVI

Friday, June 27, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)


So Tom Cruise has finally found a way to make sure all the people that don’t like him see this film. If you ever wanted to see Tom die, then get ready, because he is killed nearly a hundred times in this film in various (and sometimes very funny ways). Of course he keeps coming back, so that may be more of a nightmare to some people. But if you can get past (or enthused) by his multiple deaths, then you may find a surprisingly entertaining film.


You know you’re in trouble when you begin the summary with, “So a meteorite crashes into the middle of Germany”, but that is how this gets rolling. It is all the set up for an invasion of aliens called the Mimics. They are a deadly force and pretty much overwhelm most of Europe, decimating any army that stands against them. Humanity creates a new weapon to fight them with, a mecha suit that increases, speed, strength and firepower. It doesn’t seem to do too much until a soldier named Rita (Emily Blunt) turns the tide of a battle at Verdun and gives everyone some hope.

Cage (Tom Cruise) a slimy PR officer for the war effort dubs her “The Angel of Verdun” and uses her to get recruitment shooting through the roof. This is great news for General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) who is preparing a major invasion of continental Europe from his headquarters in London. He tries to enlist Cage’s help documenting the invasion, but Cage is cowardly and does his best to weasel out of it. Brigham takes this badly and sends Cage to the front as a soldier. Cage is hopeless and is soon killed on the beach. But Cage doesn’t die, instead he gets to try the whole thing again, and again and again! For some reason Cage is now reliving the last couple days leading up to the invasion, but this “gift” may be the key to winning the war against the Mimics. All he has to do is join forces with Rita and get enough courage to deal with the impossible battles ahead.

Good Points:
  • The plot moves quickly and has plenty of interesting twists
  • Includes a lot of morbid humor for some laugh out loud moments
  • Bill Paxton nearly steals the show in a classic supporting role

Bad Points:
  • Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise
  • The musical score is very distracting at times, nearly becoming comical
  • The resolution may bug some viewers as too convenient

A fun combination of action, twisting plot and gallows humor, this film surprised me. The production design is impressive with the mecha and alien designs being especially interesting and creative. Cruise does what he does best, play himself. But if that doesn’t bother you, there are some great turns by Blunt, Paxton and Gleason. All in all this is an entertaining and exciting film that makes for perfect summer viewing.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 2
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Casino Royale (2006)

So when it comes time for a new James Bond to take center stage, well let’s just say franchise fans get nervous. When Daniel Craig was announced to take over the role of 007, you could call the response nothing short of a general uproar. Probably hadn’t seen this many people complaining since Dalton landed the role. What is funny is that looking back at it now, it seems kinda silly, because most folks have accepted Craig in the part. But 2006, it was crazy talk I tell ya, crazy talk!


Newly promoted British Secret Service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is given his first assignment as a “00” agent. He must track down a bomber in Madagascar. After an extended chase and an explosion, Bond finds that the bomber is only one of a team. The trail takes him to the Bahamas where he discovers another bomber and a middleman who is taking his orders from a figure known as Le Chifre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Le Chifre is bankrolling terrorists, and his next scheme is to win a huge amount of money at a poker tournament at Casino Royle in Montenegro. M (Judi Dench) sends Bond, the best poker player in MI6 to go and trounce Le Chifre, forcing the terrorist to come running to the secret service and spilling his guts. If Bond loses, the British government funds terrorism. At his side is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) a lovely treasury agent who’s around to make sure Bond doesn’t screw up. However, M didn’t count on all the other people just waiting to take a shot at the money and at Bond. So begins a very deadly game at Casino Royale.

Good Points:
  • Daniel Craig brings back some danger to James Bond
  • Vesper is one of the best Bond girls in the franchise
  • Some top-notch action balanced with an interesting story

Bad Points:
  • The villains of the film are very nebulous
  • Not wall-to-wall action like some of the previous films
  • A very long film, will test some viewers patience


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

In Depth Review
Bond. James Bond - 2006
I think we all know that Die Another Day ended up being a film that didn’t satisfy too many people. In fact a lot of folks consider it the nadir of the series. I still think that the early 70s Bond flicks were worse, but the final Brosnan outing does leave a lot to be desired.

In any case, it was time for a change, and the producers decided that not only were they going to get a new actor as Bond, but they were going to shake up the franchise and do something completely new. They were going to show us Bond as an agent starting out in the role of 007. That’s right, the popularity of Batman Begins inspired them to take this route, but the concept had been brought up before, back when Dalton took the role. At the time, the head producers were not sure that audiences would take to seeing Bond as anything other than a pro. But Batman Begins showed that this angle could work for an established character, and it could reinvigorate a stale franchise.

Let the games begin!
So the reboot button was pushed. But where to start the story? Why not back with Ian Fleming’s first James bond novel, Casino Royale. It was an inspired choice. It was one of the few stories not yet adapted by the official franchise. But oddly it is the novel that has been adapted the most number of times. There was a 1954 episode of the television series Climax that used the story. It featured the American agent Jim Bond, but it was the same plot. Then there was the infamous James Bond parody version in 1967.

This version would go back to the novel’s core plot, and that would take up the second half of the film. But the first half would be all new material that would drive Bond to the poker table in Montenegro, and face to face with Le Chifre. The novel didn’t have a lot of action in it, focusing more on suspense and tension. The portions of the film that are based on the novel use the same format, but the new material injects action sequences into the proceedings, something modern audiences expect in their James Bond adventures.

With the script in place for Casino Royale, a director was chosen. Martin Campbell was selected based on his wonderful work at introducing a new James Bond to the world in 1995 with Goldeneye. Campbell was very familiar with filming top-notch action scenes as well as balancing these with tension and thrills. He was the perfect man for the job.

The third time a Bond film went to Venice.
Like most Bond films Casino Royale has some wonderful location shooting. James travels the world from Madagascar, to the Bahamas, Montenegro and then to a finale in Venice, Italy. We get lots of great establishing shots for these locales, and Bond gets to do some serious exploring in both the Bahamas and Venice. There is also some fine studio work for the interiors used in the film. Everything has that James Bond glamorous look. But the work here is actually closer to what we saw in the Dalton films like The Living Daylights where everything looks like it could be from our real world, but with a touch more pizzazz. No super villain lairs out of You Only Live Twice for this film.

One of the key elements of any James Bond adventure are the action scenes. In the mid 2000s, there was a trend to film and edit action scenes with hand held cameras, lightening fast editing and tons of zooms. The idea to create an immediacy during these scenes that pulls audiences in. Used correctly this technique can be very effective. The problem is, not many directors knew how to use it correctly. The result is action scenes that are difficult to follow at best or completely incomprehensible at worst. The action scenes of Casino Royale avoid this trap. All the key action scenes are well filmed and edited, allowing the viewer to follow the action and thrill to some of the amazing stunt work on display.

One of the best action scenes in the series.
That’s right, we got away from the dreadful CGI mess that ruined Die Another Day for a lot of Bond Fans. Instead we get some elite stunt work. The opening foot chase in Madagascar has to be one of the best action scenes in any James Bond film. Bond chases the bomber through a construction site, and dodging all kinds of obstacles and dangers. The free running is impressive and you can tell that it was done for real, even at some dizzying heights. Additional action scenes at the Miami airport (with some crazy stunt driving) and the final shoot out in Venice are also impressive. But I think the foot chase tops the rest. It is a bit of a shame that it comes at the beginning of the film, but it does get things started with a bang.

One of the reasons the action scenes work so well is that Craig really brings a grittiness and edge to his performance, something we really hadn’t seen since Dalton. For Craig it seems like the stakes are real. and he really throws himself into these sequences. In Casino Royale we see Bond really get trashed, especially during the Miami bomber sequence. We haven’t seen Bond get this beat up since the finale of License to Kill. But seeing Bond throwing himself in, often over his head, raises the thrills a notch.

I'm smiling now, but I'm about to shoot you.
Craig’s take on Bond is very similar to Dalton’s and it is clear both men based their performance on Fleming’s literary version of the character. The main difference is that Craig’s version is still making mistakes and getting in over his head. By the time we reach Skyfall, Craig’s Bond has gotten better at gauging his adversaries, allies and his own capabilities. One of the great things about the Casino Royale script, and the reboot in general is that we get to see this version of Bond change over the course of the films. This film is the starting point, but James Bond at the beginning is not the same man at the end. This is a rare thing in the franchise, the last time it happened was in Goldeneye, and you have to look back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before that. Craig delivers in the role. He is tough, arrogant, but still has a heart. And that heart is what ends up betraying him.

"I'm the money."
But can you really blame him? Eva Green plays one of the most intriguing and compelling Bond girls in franchise history. In a lot of ways she reminds me of Tracy from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a woman who is confident in her skills, but is hiding her fragility behind a cold mask. Green and Craig play off each other perfectly. The scene where Bond comforts Lynd after the attack at the Casino is perfectly acted and filmed. Her vulnerability comes through and Bond must protect her. The genuine attachment Bond has for Lynd by the end of the film is apparent, and makes the ending have more punch. That ending comes right out of the book, I’m impressed they kept it.

Beware the tears of a gambler, especially the
bloody ones.
The other key component of a James Bond film in the villain, but in Casino Royale we get something a bit different. The movie doesn’t really have a primary villain in a traditional sense. Le Chifre is set up as the main evildoer. Mikkelson plays him with a cool and dethatched contempt, very similar to Dr. No, actually. Le Chifre has the bleeding eye and facial scar – typical Bond villain visuals. But the tables shift when Le Chifre has Bond in his clutches he becomes something else – a desperate man. Mikkelson does a great job with this element (and there are hints all the way through his performance that he is merely a tool, and he knows it). Even while torturing Bond we can see he’s losing his control and is desperate to stay alive. The evil in this movie is like a hydra, Bond may kill one head, but another more dangerous one appears. The trail leads to the mysterious Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen), but even he turns out to be a hand of a larger organization, revealed in Quantum ofSolace.

"You look like hell. Did you blow up again?"
Some familiar characters and faces returned for this reboot. The head of the British secret service is still named M and still played by Judi Dench. Her performance here is a lot closer to the one she gave us in Goldeneye, where she treats Bond more as a tool and less as a person. In the Brosnan era we saw a kind of bond develop between these two characters. And a similar thing happens with Craig and Dench in the new continuity. But here she treats him as a professional, but one who keeps making mistakes. The creators did not keep any of the other London characters in the mix: no Moneypenny, no Q branch. A lot of people were disturbed by this, but I think it allowed us to focus on Bond as the primary character, something the films hadn’t really had a chance to do in a long time (although you could argue that The World is Not Enough attempted this in its own muddled way).

Another returning character with a new face is Bond’s CIA chum Felix Leiter (Jeffery Wright). He makes his first appearance in the novel of Casino Royale, so it makes sense to have him here. Wright does a good job in the small but key role. We also meet Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Gianni), a fellow agent working with Bond (or is he?) on the case. Both these characters are interesting enough and will appear again in key roles in Quantum of Solace.

"I have no armor left."
Another element that the producers brought on to reassure viewers that the new Bond was still James Bond was the music. David Arnold had scored the three previous 007 adventures with Pierce Brosnan, and his style had taken what John Barry pioneered in the 1960s and modernized it with 1990s electronics. For Casino Royale Arnold maintained his Barry inspired style but minimized the electronics. This is a leaner and meaner score in a lot of ways, getting back to the basics of James Bond music. But instead of using the classic James Bond theme by Monty Norman, Arnold worked with Chris Cornell to write the title song You Know My Name. It was the first time in decades that we had a title song for a James Bond movie sung by a man (The Living Daylights was the last one, but this shares more with Live and Let Die with it’s more rock oriented style). You Know My Name becomes the main theme for the film. This combined with the love theme do a wonderful job musically. Arnold hints at the James Bond theme a few times in the movie, such as when Bond starts on his trail for Le Chifre, or when he sees himself in a tuxedo for the first time. But he saves a full-bodied rip roaring version of the theme for the final scene – where James Bond steps forward for the first time and says the classic line “Bond… James Bond”. Arnold nails it, and this score is one of the best of his career.

Bond is definitely back in action.
Casino Royale is a James Bond film stripped down to its basics. It is a movie about James Bond, focusing on his job, his interaction with Lynd and Le Chifre and showing us how he became a 00 agent. By stripping away the super villains, the over the top action and the huge sets the film shares a lot of similarities with Dr. No or From Russia with Love. The film is 144 minutes long, the longest of the James Bond film to date. But the movie earns the length with a pacing that keeps everything balanced and interesting. Even the poker scenes, which could be a dangerous narrative trap are edited in such a way that Martin Campbell keeps the tension high. The final result is one of the best James Bond adventures of the entire franchise. It was easy to see that James Bond was back and Daniel Craig delivered.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Avalon (2001)

Between Ghost in the Shell and Ghostin the Shell 2: Innocence, Mamoru Oshii tackled a live action science fiction film. It wasn’t his first crack using a non-animated medium. But this was the first time a Japanese production team was going to film in Poland with a Polish cast and crew. You can bet this movie was going to be like nothing you’ve seen before.

In a dystopian future, the game Avalon is a huge hit. It creates a virtual reality world at war, where players can team up to complete missions and win cash. The best players and teams can make quite a living off of the game. There’s just one little snag: it is illegal and dangerous. Players have been known to go insane or brain dead while playing.

Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak) is one of the best players of Avalon, but she always works alone. Once she was part of Team Wizard, but after a mishap the team disbanded with a lot of bad blood. One day Ash runs into a former teammate, Stunner (Bartek Swiderski) who claims that their old team commander Murphy (Jerzy Gudejko) attempted to access the ultimate level hidden within Avalon. Unfortunately Murphy is now a drooling vegetable. Ash decides that she will succeed where Murphy failed, attempt to find the secret level, and achieve the impossible prize – to see a world that lies beyond the game, a place that my truly be Avalon.

Good Points:
  • Wonderful cinematography and visual execution of themes
  • Creates an oppressive atmosphere for much of the running time
  • An impressive and often propulsive score by Kenji Kawai
Bad Points:
  • Some budget limitations keep the world from feeling complete
  • Oshii’s slow pacing and obsession with hound dogs returns
  • May actually have worked better as an animated film
Oshii takes his exploration of perception of reality into the live action realm, and the results are impressive. He creates an atmospheric film with a lot of symbolism hidden away in the visuals. The action scenes do lack punch, and his slow pacing will drive some viewers nuts. But the final result is a film that creates an interesting world and characters that are hard to forget.

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

In Depth Review
Ash in her Avalon avatar mode.
Coming hot on the heels of The Matrix I remember this film suffering a lot in comparison to the big budget American blockbuster. I don’t think the advertising, which focused on the action scenes helped. Even anime fans who were familiar with Ghost in the Shell and knew something of of Oshii’s style (and quirks) were let down. Avalon just wasn’t the movie they were expecting. Yes, I’m putting myself in that camp.

My first viewing of the film left me puzzled by the whole experience and feeling that the director was spinning his wheels a bit. But the funny thing is, a lot of the imagery of the film stuck with me. I finally decided to revisit the film as part of my examination of Oshii’s work, and I was surprised by how much my expectations had hurt my initial viewing of the film. Seeing Avalon as a bridge of sorts between the two Ghost in the Shell films puts the whole thing in perspective.

Ash in the virtual reality interface for Avalon.
Let’s explore the plot before diving into the visuals, because thematic elements tie strongly to the style the Oshii attempted in this film. Ash is a true gamer. She wants to be the best player of Avalon, period. To do this, she must find the level: Special A. All the rumors she hears lead her to believe that a series of unique events must occur for the level to be revealed. She has to see a glitch in the game known as The Ghost. This ghost of a little girl must be shot, and then the player can proceed to Special A. But to even find The Ghost, the player must be part of a team that includes a character type called a bishop. But bishops are high-level players that rarely interact with teams. The second half of the film deals with Ash finding a bishop, joining a team and finally getting to Special A to complete the most dangerous mission.

The first half of the films follows Ash as she plays the game, showing us how good she is and how much she plays. We get a glimpse of her life away from the game, and how empty it seems. During this portion of the film she runs into Stunner, and we discover a bit about her past on Team Wizard. She visits Murphy’s brain dead body, and we see a hospital filled with glassy eyed bodies – other victims of Avalon? During these scenes we get to know Ash - a woman who always appears to be in control and confident with her place in the world. But it is also obvious that the events leading up to the break up of Team Wizard have impacted her.

The yellow tinged world of reality... or is it?
One of the most unique things about Avalon is the yellow filter used for most of the film. It appears in various degrees throughout the movie. When we are seeing Ash in her real life, the filter is lightly applied. The effect is that everything has a kind of washed out almost sepia look to it. Reds stand out quite a bit, but they are rarely seen. All the interfaces in the film are yellow or orange (a trait shared with Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence).

But once Ash enters Avalon the yellow filter dominates the visuals. This world seems a bit brighter than the real world, but it is still a war torn place with ruins dotting the landscape. All the life we see in this world, including the trees, grass and other players is awash in this bright yellow light.

Eventually that yellow filter vanishes, and the result is remarkable. Colors that we’ve spent nearly an hour and half without bombard the viewer: blues, greens and purples. It actually reminded me of a similar event that occurred in Boogeipop Phantom, which saved the cooler hues for the final episode or key moments.

Ash exploring the secret level.
In addition to the stark color changes that occur in the film, Avalon differentiates between the three worlds with production design.  The level Special A: is essentially Warsaw in the year 2001. This is a vivid contrast to the broken down world Ash lives in, and even the gaming world, that is always filled with the smoke of war and shadowed by ruins. When Ash arrives in Special A, she is given an actual gown to wear and a symphony to attend. Things she would never experience in her world or with the normal game of Avalon.

The movie is essentially bookended by long sequences of Ash wandering her world. In the first half we see her in her regular routine, her gaming, and caring for her dog (whom she treats much better than she treats herself). It seems strange to spend so much time watching her do these things while the plot is in standby mode until she meets Stunner. But the scenes in Special A show us a mirror of the earlier scenes. In this case, Ash is not comfortable in her world, she is the outsider, and yet she is intrigued by what she sees. Foremniak plays it all very subtly, but her eyes show you that this world of Special A is something she falls in love with. Ash is a very different person in both these sequences, even if the sequences themselves seem all too similar.

The game of Avalon is a brutal one.
One of the main reasons Avalon was filmed in Poland was to give the movie a unique feel from typical Japanese films. It works really well, feeling like we are in a world that is unfamiliar. Warsaw has a very European feel to it, and Oshii selects locations that feel aged and lost. In addition Oshii was able to make a deal with the Polish military. So the tanks, helicopters and weapons you see in the film are real functioning equipment. This brings a level of realism to the game sequences.

But to keep things virtual, there are some computer effects thrown in. A few of the vehicles you see are obviously mecha designs, like the citadel machine that Ash and her team face near the end of the film. There is also a neat effect when players get killed in the game, they break into component digital parts. Very reminiscent of both Tron and Tron Legacy. There are also times when the visuals play with the computer imagery, like when Ash literally walks behind some smoke on the battle field and it all goes from a 3D immersive cloud, to a flat 2D set of pixels.

Ash takes no prisoners in the game world.
The budget constraints do peek through on a few occasions. The world seems very claustrophobic at times, but that works well with the story. It happens frequently enough that you get the feeling that there is more going on, but that they just didn’t have the budget to show it. The yellow filter does manage to hide the seams in some the scenes. The action scenes suffer in places because of budget limits. It often feels like Oshii is using edits to cheat around the fact that he couldn’t damage the borrowed equipment or the locations they were shooting at. It is just obvious enough to make those scenes feel a bit clunky, something that rarely happens in his animated films. For those reasons, I would be curious to see what Avalon could have been like in an animated format.

The acting is a bit hard to judge. I’ve seen this movie with the original Polish dub and English subtitles. For my revisit I watched the English dub. Like most of Oshii’s other films, there are some really talky sequences in this movie.  Watching the film in Polish feels more natural but keeping up with the subtitles can be a chore. The English dub is a real mixed bag. Most of the voice actors have Eastern European accents, and for some reason it just doesn’t work. I kept getting pulled out of the movie by the accents and the mismatched lip flaps. Usually I can look past that kind of thing, but this time it was tough. Still, the story seemed to flow a bit better with the English dub and I could focus more on Oshii’s visuals.

A haunting empty game world, but so similar to her
real one.
The sound effects work is pretty solid. Some of the in-game stuff is creative, and gives an additional element of the unreal. But the real star of the audio show has to be Kenji Kawai. This score is much like his score for Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence – cold but driving forward. He uses some electronics in this score and it works wonderfully. But the big difference is where the Ghost in the Shell series used ancient Japanese songs as it’s base, Kawai focuses on an Eastern European symphonic sound. This fits Avalon like a glove and makes this one of his most accessible scores for an Oshii film. The final confrontation plays against a symphonic concert with some massive choral performances. It really works wonderfully in the film and also as a stand-alone listen. Kawai and Oshii work together so well, and this film really proves that.

Like Oshii’s other films, each element of filmmaking plays a part in the larger message and themes he is exploring. Once again we come back to perception of reality, a concept he has been exploring since Urasei Yatsura 2:Beautiful Dreamer. Much like Ataru in the dream jumping finale of that silly movie, Ash travels from reality to reality, seeking out an answer to a question she didn’t know she was really asking – which world is my reality? Oshii’s long scenes allow us to soak up the atmosphere and feel of each of the three worlds. And like Ash we begin to feel that Special A, must be the real world. It has all the color, all the excitement, all the “reality” that her life and her game doesn’t have.

"Hey there babe. How about a ride?"
And yet, there’s that hound dog again screwing things up. Why is this dog even in the movie? The easy answer is that Oshii is obsessed with basset hounds. But there is a thematic reason too. As I mentioned we see that Ash cares for her dog much better than she cares for herself. She gets it the best food she can afford. She obviously loves the little guy. When he disappears about halfway through the film, she becomes very distraught.

But Avalon throws us a visual curveball. The hound reappears in Special A, physically in a car passing by (but the camera makes sure we get a good look at him watching Ash). Then, a basset hound is featured on all the posters for the symphony where Ash makes her final reckoning with fate. Seeing her dog catches her eye and draws her to the symphony, sure. But why was the hound selected as the key image for a symphonic concert? Suddenly we have to wonder if this Special A world was built by Ash in a subconscious way. Or maybe it was designed to draw her into a trap. Remember she runs into Murphy in this world, but back in her home world, he is a drooling vegetable. Will Ash suffer the same fate if she stays here? Finally the hound could just be a visual clue the audience that Special A is where Ash will find what she’s looking for – her lost dog and her lost life.

Ash entering the final level? Or ending her life?
Oshii’s movie is like much of his other work. You’ll either enjoy his visual style, his slow evolution of the story and the lengthy dialogue scenes that seem a bit too full of exposition. Or you’ll find the whole thing to be dull and visually unappealing. For some folks the yellow filter is going to be too much to get around. I think that Avalon is a unique film, and one that has a lot of interesting elements. It stands out from the crowd and I certainly found it to be one of the more intriguing science fiction movies I’ve seen in the new millennium. It makes a perfect double feature with David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Score Sample - Ben Hur

I've mentioned several film score composers from the golden age, but it has been a while. So  here is a sample of one of my favorite composers from that era, Miklos Rozsa. He is best known for his work on huge sprawling Hollywood epics. But Rozsa was very versatile and could handle all kinds of scores. I have to admit his big scores really appeal to me, and one of the biggest and best is his score for Ben Hur. This score has a myriad of themes, and Rozsa does some wonderful things with them. It was really hard to pick a single track, but I went with the Overture, which gives you a nice taste of the HUGE sound that Rozsa was always willing to go for. In many ways Ben Hur set the standard for what epics would sound like, but that may be because Rozsa ended up scoring so many of them. :)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Top Ten - Favorite Anime

I've been asked a few times to post of list of the best anime I've seen. Well, there is that word again... best. I always feel a bit guilty posting a best of list, especially when I haven't seen, heard or experienced everything there is to offer in that category. 

My exposure to anime is actually pretty limited. I got into collecting in the late 1990s and continued into the early 00s. Then I took some time away, nearly a decade. Lately I've been trying some series when I read about one that sounds intriguing or is from creators of other series I enjoyed. I've missed out on some of the really big titles in the last decade - still haven't seen shows like One Piece or Bleach. I usually enjoy Rumiko Takahshi, but still haven't seen a single minute of Inu Yasha. Then there's all the older shows I haven't seen - especially those shows by Leiji Mastsumoto (and no, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, doesn't count). 

So that brings me back to the same tactic I used when I talked about film scores of the 1980s. I'm gonna give you a list of my 10 favorite anime series and movies. I've blogged about a few of these already, but expect to see some of these others get a post or two in the future. I'm trying a new technique here, a summary of the show followed by three points why this is on my top 10.

10. Trigun (1998)

One of the three space cowboy anime from the late 1990s. Trigun follows the adventures of Vash the Stampede, the most wanted man on a dusty and forgotten planet. He is known as the humanoid typhoon, and is accused with destroying an entire city, just for kicks. But when we meet him, he seems to be nothing but contradictions. Is he a pacifist who leveled an entire town? Is he the toughest desperado on the planet, that runs away and screams like a little girl at the first sign of danger? Is he a sociopathic killer that just stopped to help a little girl find her lost cat? As the plot unfolds you start to wonder what is Vash really after. Can he run from his destiny forever, or will the man named Knives bring it all back with blood?
  • Interesting world and production design. Literally the old west meets space adventure
  • The show keeps you guessing because...
  • Vash the Stampede, is one of the most conflicted and unusual protagonists in any anime I've seen. Once you get to know him, you just have to see how it all turns out.
9. Vision of Escaflowne (1996)

Hitomi is just a normal high school girl. She's fallen for an upperclassman, and tries to impress him during practice for a track meet. But in the middle of her sprint she is literally pulled into another world. There she meets two handsome men, one looks just like her crush back on Earth. The other is a rough and dangerous prince. Eventually she becomes entangled in a war raging across this world. Hitomi must face dragons, giant mecha that are used as knights, conniving catgirls and one of the most twisted villains ever put into an anime series. But there is a dark heart hiding in the middle of this world, and Hitomi starts to realize that she should have stayed home.
  • Amazing world and production design
  • Wonderful orchestral score by Yoko Kanno, maybe her best work ever
  • The story takes us from a romantic fantasy and into a dark twist that subverts many of the characters you thought you knew leading to an ending that is bittersweet
8. Gunsmith Cats (1995)

Rally Vincent and her partner Minnie May are gunsmiths by day, and bounty hunters at night. They search Chicago for the toughest criminals and always bring them in. Their pal, Becky is the information source in the city and knows who is who and where anything can be found - for a price. Rally and May pick up a gun runner on a routine hunt. But the next day they find out that the ATF was watching the guy and needed him free for a big sting they were planning. Agent Bill Collins ends up persuading (blackmailing) the girls to help him out on the case. And it all goes to hell. Before you know it, there are shoot outs, explosions, car chases, insane Russian assassins and a conspiracy. No one is safe! But Rally and May are tough gals and you can bet they won't go down without a fight.
  • Top notch action scenes
  • A very funny English dub that nails the 1980s action movie vibe
  • Nostalgic favorite: the series that got be into anime fandom
7. Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)

All Utena wants to do is grow up to be a prince, no seriously. Utena lives in a strange world where high school is a baroque fantasy world, ruled by a student council that holds duels to determine who is the most powerful. We're talking full blown sword duels with rapiers and 1800s outfits. Utena makes friends with Anthy a sweet girl who happens to be the Rose Bride. This ticks off the student council something fierce, no one is allowed to hang out with the Rose Bride except for them. So Utena finds herself challenged to duels to be Anthy's friend. Along the way she faces a bitchy rival, a group of ghosts that want to take over the school and Anthy's brother who may be the most twisted of them all. Revolutionary Girl Utena is a disco fueled, rose covered, blade flashing blast of weird. You'll either become enchanted by it, or run screaming in the opposite direction
  • Amazing visual world created for the show, with white, pink and red being the key colors
  • A score that mixes rock opera style with disco and lush orchestral romance
  • Fill to bursting with symbolism, surreal moments and "revolutionary" imagery - but also plays as a sweet story of a tom boy trying to fit in.
6. Millenium Actress (2001)

Genya wants to make a documentary about his favorite actress Chiyoko. After tracking down the reclusive woman, she agrees to an interview. But things start getting a little strange as she tells her story. One minute Genya and his camera man are sitting in her living room, the next they are in war torn Japan! They watch her story unfold like a movie... and then realize that they are actually in one of her movies! Genya jumps right in, taking roles in her life and her films. Meanwhile a mystery begins to unfold around a lost love and a lost key. What Chiyoko doesn't know is that Genya holds the final clue to this mystery that has plagued her for decades. The last performance of this Millennium Actress is one you can't miss. 

  • Director Satoshi Kon's most heartfelt and approachable work
  • Toys with perspective and reality in a fun and interesting way
  • Chiyoko is an amazing character and her story really keeps you watching and returning to this film
5. El Hazard: The Magnificent World (1995)

Three high school students and their tipsy teacher are hurled into an amazing fantasy world by a strange woman who appears in some ruins found under the school. The journey seems to have granted the four travelers unique powers. Mr. Fujisawa has superhuman strength, as long as he stays sober. Jinnai can understand the language of monsters. His sister Nanami can see past illusions. But poor Mikoto just bears a striking resemblance to a lost princess. Before you can say cross dressing, Mikoto is forced to play princess during a debate. You see the country is at war, and everyone needs to pitch in. These powers will become vital as the four encounter giant bugs, spell casting priestess, super weapons and demon goddesses. Will our heros have a chance at returning home, or are they having too much fun in El Hazard: The Magnificent World?
  • Innovative world design combines futuristic technology with Arabian Knights style
  • A hilarious English dub with many quotable lines and fun performances
  • Packed with plenty of laughs, adventure and fun - but also has a lot of heart, with an ending that will get to all romantics out there.
4. Spirited Away (2001)

Young Chihiro doesn't want to move to a new home, so she sulks in the back seat as her parents drive to the new residence. Along the way they take a wrong turn and end up at an abandoned and forgotten amusement park. The family explores it, but Chihiro feels that something is just off about the whole place. She's proven right when her parents are transformed into giant pigs after eating forbidden food. Now Chihiro must pay for her parents sins, and is forced to work for the wicked witch Yubaba. If Chihiro has any hope of saving her parents, she must find a way to trick Yubaba, befriend a dragon spirit, and earn the respect of all the crazy spirits living in the haunted amusement park. 
  • Amazing animation by Studio Ghibli and directed by animation master Hayao Miyazaki.
  • A wonderful score by Joe Hisaishi, my personal favorite from of his work.
  • Chihiro is a wonderful character that grows up right before our eyes

3. Boogiepop Phantom (2000)

In an unnamed city in Japan, the angel of death is stalking teens. It calls itself Boogiepop and if you see her, then you'll disappear forever. But this city is teaming with dangers, including a creature called the Manticore. This horrible beast takes pleasure in ripping flesh apart. Searching for answers among these terrors and mysteries is local tough girl, Nagi Kirima. She wants to find the killer and put a stop to it, but the further she digs the more questions she finds. Boogiepop Phantom is told in a non-linear fashion, with each episode offering a single tale, but one that adds up to a larger story. Dark and disturbing the series balances atmospheric horrors with gore and blood. It makes this one of the best anime horror series I've ever seen.
  • The animation is atmospheric and dreamlike 
  • The non-linear storytelling is amazing, telling compelling tales with each episode and putting together the larger story right up to the final few minutes of the series
  • A steller English dub cast makes all the performances work.

2. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Section 9 takes care of cyber terrorists in a very permanent fashion. The top agent is Major Kusanagi, a female cyborg who is as deadly as she is hot. Her latest case has her chasing a master hacker called the Puppetmaster. He hacks cyber brains of powerful and wealthy targets creating some serious security risks. The only problem is that each lead only turns out to be another puppet. Section 9 gets it's first break when a cyborg body goes haywire, and runs into a busy freeway. Examing the cyborg they discover that they are dealing with a program called 2501, a information gathering system that has gained sentience. Now, the creators of 2501 want it back or destroyed, whichever is easier. Kusanagi must decide if 2501 is a criminal and if not, can she protect something that doesn't have a body. One of my favorite science fiction films, and featuring one of my favorite science fiction heroines. 
  • Amazing visuals creating wonderful mood and tense action scenes
  • A well crafted story that offers plenty of food for thought
  • Major Kusanagi kicks all kinds of ass

1. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)

The world has suffered through the horrors of a cataclysm called Second Impact. This event caused the polar ice caps to melt and kill off millions of humans. It also announced the presence of terrifying creatures called Angels. In response humans have banded together to face the Angels, pooling resources to create a new kind of weapon. It is called Evangelion, a giant armored creature that must be piloted to battle an angel. These pilots must be able to synch with the Evangelions, and those that can are rare indeed. Shinji Ikari, a lonely and angst filled teenager, is one of those that can synch with an Evangelion. His father Gendou, demands that Shinji pilot the Eva. Shinji who has fallen out with his father, refuses at first, but after seeing the destruction an Angel can wreck first hand, he agrees. This single decision starts a chain of events that will lead to the end of the world as we all know it. Is this all a plan to push humanity to a new form? A form that none of us can even begin to conceive of. Or it could end with mind bending insanity. It all depends on who you talk to.
  • Shinji Ikari is one of the most interesting and conflicted characters in anime. He feels like a real kid trapped in a hopeless situation.
  • The series builds upon itself, with tension rising with each episode until it explodes in an visual orgy of chaos and fear (especially if you watch the original television series ending)
  • Filled with memorable characters, visuals, themes and music. 
  • Enjoyable on the surface, but holds a lot of meaning with each revisit.
So there you have it, my top ten favorite series. Lots of other shows and movies came close, but these are the ones I tend to return to the most frequently.