Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tank Girl

(1995) Directed by Rachel Talalay; Written by Tedi Sarafian; Based on the comic by: Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett; Starring: Lori Petty, Ice-T, Naomi Watts and Malcolm McDowell; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

“It's 2033. The world is screwed now. You see, a while ago this humongous comet came crashing into the earth. Bam, total devastation. End of the world as we know it. No celebrities, no cable TV, no water. It hasn't rained in 11 years. Now 20 people gotta squeeze inside the same bathtub – so it ain't all bad.” – Tank Girl (Lori Petty) (From IMDB)

Reviews for this amalgamation of post-apocalyptic science fiction tropes and comic book sensibilities weren’t exactly kind when it was released, but there was something that compelled me to watch Tank Girl anyway.  While my memories of the film became hazy over the years, I recall that I kind of liked it.  Almost 20 years later, I still kind of do.  I’m baffled this ever got the green light, but I’m glad someone saw fit to bankroll the film.

I could be at a disadvantage that I never read the comic Tank Girl was based upon, but depending on whom you ask, the film version probably wasn’t a very faithful adaptation.  Concessions were likely made to appeal to a broader audience, unfamiliar with Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s comic.  Rather than debate how strictly the film adhered to the source material, I’d rather focus on the film at hand

The post-apocalyptic landscape depicted in Tank Girl shouldn’t be unfamiliar territory to those familiar with Mad Max or its numerous imitators.  Water is a precious commodity, controlled by the evil Department of Water and Power.  As our eponymous heroine points out, they possess most of the water, and they have the power.  Lori Petty plays the title role like an impudent teenager.  Her character looks and acts like a live action cartoon.  As written, she has about as much depth as a kiddie pool.  We never really get to learn much about her, or her history, but maybe that’s not the point.  She exists as an enigmatic archetype for the rebel without a clue.  If there’s an establishment, she’s against it.   

Naomi Watts appears in an early role (almost unrecognizable with dark hair and glasses) as Tank Girl’s timid sidekick Jet Girl.  Her character arc experiences a significant shift, as she transitions from a tool of the Department of Water and Power to become Tank Girl’s accomplice.  She’s the reserved yin to Jet Girl’s obnoxious yang.

The always watchable Malcolm McDowell plays Kesslee, malevolent head of the Department of Water – the sort of sneering villain role that’s become his specialty over the years.  Although he could likely perform this type of character in his sleep, he seems to be having a good time, which he corroborated in a recent interview.  In one memorable scene, he conducts a toast to his villainy by drinking water extracted from one of his dead minions.  He demands absolute loyalty, and tolerates zero mistakes.  His contentious relationship with Tank Girl could be likened to that of an authoritarian parent and a rebellious teen.  While everyone else buckles under, she continually thwarts his attempts to subjugate her to his will.

Director Rachel Talalay keeps things lively, endowing the film with an anarchic style.  The live action scenes are strung together with flashes of comic book stills and snippets of Heavy Metal-style animation.  The soundtrack is a pastiche of songs thrown together in haphazard fashion, a veritable who’s who of artists from the mid-90s, including Bjork, Hole and L7.  One of the more effective byproducts of the film’s chaotic style is an impromptu song and dance number at the midpoint.  When she infiltrates a brothel where a young girl is being held captive, Tank Girl forces the madam, played by an uncredited Ann Magnuson, to sing the 1928 Cole Porter tune, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love."   A full-blown rendition ensues, replete with a Busby Berkeley-esque display.  This clever nod to musicals of yesteryear is the film’s high point, setting the bar a little too high for the scenes that follow.  We’re introduced to a group of mutant kangaroo men (from a Stan Winston design), known as Rippers.  Their leader, T-Saint, is played by Ice-T (who else?), who doesn’t do much but sneer.  They become Tank Girl’s allies, which leads to a pedestrian conclusion, featuring a standard shoot-‘em-up and showdown with the bad guy.

Although Tank Girl failed to win over audiences during its theatrical run, the film deserved better than it got.  By the same token, I couldn’t be too surprised by its weak reception.  It’s the definitive cult film, enjoyed by a minority, while the rest of the world scratches their collective heads.  Some scenes go nowhere, and the climax is all-too predictable, but the film is full of a bizarre exuberance that’s oddly irresistible. The mixed bag we end up with reminds us we need more oddball films like Tank Girl, and far fewer Transformers flicks.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Liebster Mark III

I owe a belated debt of gratitude to Vern, proprietor of TheVern’s VideoVortex and the defunct-but-not-forgotten Video Vanguard for my latest award nomination.  While this is my third Liebster, it never gets old.  I’m always amazed and humbled that someone out there actually reads the stuff I write (Perhaps he deserves an award for that alone).  Besides the warm and fuzzy sensation I get with this recognition, it affords me the opportunity to give a little back to the blogging community by recognizing some other worthy writers.  Although we may be separated by state borders, nationalities, or oceans, we share a common love of movies, bringing each of us a little closer with mutual recognition by our peers.

So, here are the rules, should you wish to accept.  There’s no obligation to participate, and a money-back guarantee if you’re not completely satisfied by this nomination.*
  1. The bloggers who have been nominated must link back to the person who nominated them.

  1. Nominees must answer the eleven questions given to them by the person who nominated them.

  1. Those nominated must choose eleven of their favorite bloggers who have less than 200 followers to answer their own set of questions.

  1. When you are nominated, you cannot nominate the person who nominated you.

* No money changed hands during the making of this post.

11 Blogs that I’m passing this on to (Should they wish to accept):

Movies at Dog Farm
The Girl with the White Parasol
Wide Weird World of Cult Films
Frisco Kid at the Movies
Raindrops on Corpses & Whiskers on Zombies... These are a few of my favorite things.
Margaret Perry
Dr. Carnage’s World of Horror

11 Questions and answers (Feel free to recycle these questions or write your own):

1.  What angers you the most when watching a movie in theaters?   

Inconsiderate film-goers.  Judging by their oafish behavior (talking, kicking the seatbacks, etc…), you would think watching the movie was the last thing on their mind.  It reminds me of a particularly bad experience my wife and I had when we still lived in Los Angeles.  What should have been a movie lover’s dream, watching The Fellowship of the Ring at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, soon devolved into a nightmare, thanks to some individual sitting behind us who saw fit to provide his companion a 3-hour-plus running commentary.  Not to sound like a commercial, but this is what I love about the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin.  It’s created by movie fanatics, for movie fanatics, and they don’t put up with that crap (okay, Alamo, where are my free passes?).

2.  What do you love about watching movies in theaters?  With the price of tickets (not to mention concessions) these days, my family and I don’t get out to the movies nearly as often as we’d like.  But when I do, I adore the “big screen” experience, being totally immersed in the movie.  Even with a relatively large TV, it’s impossible to duplicate the same experience at home.  There’s nothing quite like being in a theater where everyone’s hyped to see the picture – especially an old favorite that’s being shown again.  There’s a palpable feeling in the air, a sort of unspoken kinship between movie fans that can’t be denied.

3.  Name a movie you never want to watch. Ever.

Cannibal Holocaust.  I love horror films, but I have a very low tolerance for films depicting sadism or animal cruelty for shock effect. 

4.  Name a movie you’re ashamed you haven’t seen yet.  

I can’t think of a specific title, because there are so many worthwhile films out there.  If I had to pick a genre that I’ve neglected, it would have to be film noir.  Although I’m a huge admirer of the genre, I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Hmmm… I think I sense a future theme month.

5.   Favorite weekend hangout?

My job on a university campus brings me into contact with multitudes of college students during the day.  By the week’s end, I tend to feel a little overwhelmed, so my ideal weekend hangout is right at home, where I don’t have to see the light of day for at least a little while, and can write, watch movies, and be a hermit (my family is very understanding).

6.  Favorite band or music artist for the past week.  I’m in a Ramones mood at the moment.  And why not? They’re a true American classic.  Hey, ho, let’s go!

7.  3D.  Yay or Nay?

Wow, that’s a loaded question.  In my recent review of Creature from the Black Lagoon, I lamented the fact that I didn’t have a 3D TV to watch my Blu-ray.  On the other hand, as I stated a few years back, I’m still not convinced it’s more than a flashy gimmick, unnecessary for everyday movie watching.

8. Name a movie you wish you could have been on the set while it was filming. 

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall to observe the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey, although I think Mr. Kubrick would have had something to say about it.

9. How do you stream movies (Computer, Blu-ray Player, Game Consoles like PS4 and Wii)? 

If I’m watching something for the first time, I prefer to watch it through my Blu-ray player, but in a pinch I’ll use anything else that’s available (desktop, laptop, etc…).

10. What are your top five favorite movie podcasts to listen too?  My week’s pretty hectic, so I’m ashamed to admit I don’t really get much of a chance to listen to podcasts.  On the other hand, I may have some news regarding a possible podcast in the very near future.  Or not (I tend to be a bit shy and reclusive – see answer #5).

11.  Who is your movie celebrity crush?  You have to answer for both guys and girls. 

No contest for my guy crush – Humphrey Bogart.  Bogart excelled at depicting folks who were not afraid to get their hands dirty, or take it on the chin to fight for a just cause.

For the girls – Julianne Moore.  I’m always impressed with her remarkable range, whether it’s her underrated comic performance as avant-garde artist Maude in The Big Lebowski, or the pathetic porn star Amber Waves in Boogie Nights.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Battlefield Baseball (aka: Jigoku Kôshien)

(2003) Directed by: Yudai Yamaguchi; Written by: Yudai Yamaguchi and Isao Kiriyama; Based on the manga by: Gatarô Man; Starring: Tak Sakaguchi, Atsushi Itô and Hideo Sakaki; Available on DVD

Rating: ** ½

“In baseball you can never win on your own.  The Most important thing is the teamwork, the friendship!  Friendship gave me power!” – Jubei (Tak Sakaguchi)

Many thanks to fellow fan of the obscure, Todd of ForgottenFilms for inviting me to participate in the Big League Blogathon, which celebrates the myriad cinematic interpretations of baseball.  When the gauntlet was thrown, I gladly accepted, but was left with the task of finding a title that would reflect that certain je ne sais quoi spirit of my blog.  My choice, Battlefield Baseball, probably wouldn’t be the first (or 25th) movie that would spring to mind, but that’s okay.  This is why I’m here, and we’re going to get through this together.

Since the sport’s introduction in the late 19th century, Japan has enjoyed an enduring love affair with baseball.  It’s become a national obsession, perhaps second only to sumo wrestling in popularity.  The film begins with the caption: “This movie is dedicated to all those who love baseball.”  It’s too bad that what follows bears little resemblance to the beloved sport, leading me to wonder if the statement was meant to be ironic.  With Battlefield Baseball’s apocalyptic, anarchic tone, first-time director and co-writer Yudai Yamaguchi isn’t doing the sport any favors.

Like many sports films, Battlefield Baseball features a protagonist with phenomenal talent and a tortured past.  Jubei (Tak Sakaguchi) has a killer pitch – literally, and has vowed never to play again.  We learn about his tragic history, told in song, in which young Jubei accidentally kills his father with a fastball.  Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a story if he held to his vow, and it’s not long before he decides to join the Seido High School team, and help fight their dreaded archrivals.  The Gedo High School* team consists of gray-skinned (zombie?) thugs with no respect for the rules.  Only Jubei and his super tornado pitch stand in the way of Gedo dominating the upcoming Kashien Stadium Tournament.   

* The “high school” players in this movie appear to have been out of high school for at least a decade.

Although some of the film’s transgressions can be attributed to a miniscule budget, this doesn’t excuse the fact that most of it’s a mess, favoring a random bunch of scattered gags over coherence.  Except for a short practice scene towards the beginning of the film, anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of baseball will probably be left scratching his or her head about why we never see anyone playing anything resembling baseball. We never see evidence of any other teams, or spectators for the games (and I’m using “games” very loosely).  Instead, we’re treated to a series of cartoonish scenes of carnage that evoke comparisons to the superior Battle Royale.  I suppose the two teams are supposed to represent good versus evil, but taking into account the film’s twisted logic, the Seido team just seem obtuse.  If they know they’re in a life-or-death tournament where their opponents are out for blood, why are they prepared to play a conventional game?  None of this is ever explained – we’re just expected to accept it at face value. 

Battlefield Baseball wins points for originality, but due to sloppy execution (to borrow a baseball metaphor) never quite hits it out of the park. In this case, the baseball theme is merely incidental.  The sport could likely have been changed to wrestling, hockey, or any other sport, with few changes.  With the right take on the concept, the film might have worked.   It works in spots, but at the end of the day I wanted more baseball in my baseball movie.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Eighties Movie Monster Faves

If the ‘50s represented a golden age for monster movies, then the ‘80s were a Renaissance, a rebirth of creature design, filtered through an updated set of sensibilities.  It’s easy to draw parallels between the two decades, which exhibited their fair share of excessive fashion and Cold War paranoia.  Monsters of the ‘50s and ‘80s, whether they originated from a foreign land or alien planet, were metaphors for xenophobia.  Outsiders were not to be trusted.  But ‘80s monsters went beyond this paradigm, reflecting a new cynicism that criticized the authorities we were supposed to believe in. 
Monsters of the 1980s reflected the changing demands of a more sophisticated audience, jaded by decades of rubber monsters, and demanding something more convincing and visceral.  Answering the call were a new wave of effects masters, including Stan Winston, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.  In addition to good old man-in-suit effects and puppetry, their bag of tricks incorporated servo-controlled animatronics and modern lightweight materials.  While some of these methods may seem primitive by today’s standards, they took practical creature effects to a whole new level of artistry and craftsmanship, with a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood quality that millions of dollars of CGI could never equal.

No offense intended if I’ve left out one of your favorites (feel free to comment).  You may notice the absence of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, who at the very least deserve honorable mentions, but for reasons too arbitrary to mention, I’ve omitted them from my list.  Without further introduction, I submit a bakers’ dozen, in no particular order, of my favorite ‘80s monsters:

1. The Thing (TheThing, 1982) John Carpenter’s remake of the 1950s classic The Thing from Another World was met with indifference from mainstream audiences and dismissed by critics when it was released in 1982.  In recent years, however, it’s climbed its way to the top of many horror/sci-fi aficionados’ lists, thanks in no small part to Rob Bottin’s mind-blowing effects.  With his various nightmare-inducing creations, Bottin takes us places only hinted at by the original version.  For the first time, we witness the messy onscreen ramifications of a shape-shifting alien life form that can become a perfect copy of anything it desires.  

2. Brundlefly (The Fly, 1986) Building on themes established by his earlier “body horror” films (including The Brood and Videodrome), David Cronenberg put his inimitable spin on his remake of another 1950s classic, The Fly.  Whereas the original creature, with its human body and oversized fly head, appears more kitschy than fearsome, the new iteration eschews the old aesthetic to present something that’s neither man, nor insect, but an amalgamation. After a teleporter accident combines his DNA with a housefly, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) undergoes a gradual metamorphosis that simultaneously evokes our sympathies and revulsion.  His final form, realized by Chris Walas, underscores the potential hazards of exploring new scientific frontiers.    

3. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (Ghostbusters, 1984) Who knew the instrument of humanity’s destruction could be so hilarious?  Ivan Reitman’s riff on kaiju proves that any sufficiently large monster, no matter how ridiculous, rampaging through New York City can still elicit panic.  Fear, in this case, accompanies a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance.  The late Harold Ramis articulated it best as Egon Spengler when he said, “...I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”

4. Tie: Werewolves (An American Werewolf in London, 1981, and The Howling, 1981) It’s big budget versus small budget, as two effects wizards, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, achieve the same ends with subtly different approaches.  In a departure from earlier incarnations of cinematic lycanthropes, which relied on time-lapse photography and cuts, audiences for both films witnessed the painful transformation of man to beast, through in-camera, real-time effects. 

5. Gremlins (Gremlins, 1984) Cute little chatterboxes transform into malevolent demons (No, I’m not referring to teenagers).  Joe Dante’s anarchic vision is brought to life through Chris Walas’ imaginative creations.  What starts out as one innocuous mogwai suddenly becomes hundreds of evil creatures, hell-bent with an appetite for destruction and a penchant for watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

6. Alien Queen (Aliens, 1986) How could James Cameron, working with Stan Winston’s creature effects crew, improve H.R. Giger’s original, elegant creature designs?  He didn’t.  Instead, Cameron and his crew introduced a new, equally terrifying monster to the Alien canon.  By appropriating some of the best aspects of Giger’s biomechanical elements and taking them to the logical conclusion for a bigger, more powerful creature, he created something entirely new.  Ever wonder what laid the giant eggs in Alien?  Wonder no more.

7. Cenobites (Hellraiser, 1987) Clive Barker introduced the world to these leather-clad demons from a hellish nether realm.  Mortals who are foolish enough to toy with a Pandora’s Rubik’s Cube, the puzzle box, summon the beings, who thrive on pleasure and pain (Guess which aspect you’ll witness most?).  Each Cenobite appears in various states of mutilation, including a mute, perpetually chattering creature, with lips cut away to reveal a set of gnashing teeth.   Pinhead (Doug Bradley), known as the “Lead Cenobite” in the first film is their de facto spokesperson, and tour guide to hell.  Sadly, his impact has become diluted over time, on account of his subsequent appearances in the numerous, non-Barker, sequels attempting to turn him into another wisecracking boogieman, like Freddy or the Leprechaun.

8. Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988) The Kevin Yagher-designed Chucky owes a debt of gratitude to the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, as well as the creepy My Buddy toy of the 80s (see below) for its inception.  When dying mass murderer Charles Lee Ray’s (Brad Dourif) soul enters a Good Guys doll, the toy comes to life.  Needless to say, when people get in the way of Chucky, bad things happen.

 Behold, this nostalgic bit of nightmare fodder:

9. The Toxic Avenger (The Toxic Avenger, 1984) Hailed as “the first superhero from New Jersey,” the Toxic Avenger (aka: “Toxie”) is a champion of the downtrodden citizens of Tromaville, and underdogs everywhere.  Director/co-writer/producer Lloyd Kaufman’s enduring character has become synonymous with Troma films, and reminds us that sometimes, the monsters are on our side.

10. “Ghouls” (They Live, 1988) To the best of my knowledge, there’s no official name for the aliens in John Carpenter’s allegorical 1988 film, They Live, although they’re sometimes referred to as “ghouls.”  While they roam freely among us as fellow humans, their true appearance is only revealed through special glasses.  In this case, an invasion has already occurred, and we’re their conquest.  For most of the populace, we choose to remain in a brainwashed state, blind to the truth that resides in front of our own eyes.

11. Killer Klowns (Killer Klowns from Outer Space, 1988) Who doesn’t like clowns? Oh yeah, just about everyone.  The comical, yet horrifying, clown-like aliens (or “klowns”), created by the Chiodo brothers, tap into our universal fears.  They managed to distill everything we ever disliked or suspected about clowns into these nightmarish extraterrestrial creatures, who abduct and dine on human prey.

12. The Predator (Predator, 1987) Although this Stan Winston creation wears dreadlocks, he’s not interested in peace, love and reggae, but collecting human skulls as trophies.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch finds his ultimate nemesis in the predator, played by 7-foot, 2-½ inch Kevin Peter Hall.  Most Schwarzenegger vehicles focus on his strength, but the former bodybuilder appears puny next to his massive opponent.

13. Belial (Basket Case, 1982) Frank Henenlotter’s tale of brotherly love stretched to its limit features everyone’s favorite homicidal parasitic twin.  Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) carries his deformed twin Belial around in a basket, vowing revenge against the physicians who separated them in an illicit surgical procedure.  You might be tempted to ask, “What’s in the basket?” Hope you never find out.