Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Christmas Carol Worth Forgetting

A Christmas Carol(1994)
Director: Toshiyuki Hiruma
Cast: Tony Ail, Nathan Aswell, Chera Bailey

This past Christmas, I saw many versions of Charles Dickens' venerable classic. They ranged from the sublime(the 1951 version with Alistair Sims) to the absurd(A Muppet Christmas Carol.) 
This low-budget animated adaption looks promising enough, but don't expect anything resembling either the 1982 Australian animated version or the earlier Richard Williams adaption.
For many kids that grew up in the 90s, the name "Jetlag Productions" is probably warning enough to stay far away from this adaption. That company was responsible for releasing several cheap knock-offs of popular Disney cartoons, including their own versions of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Snow White. They were even sold in the same clam shell cases that was the trademark of the Disney tapes, leading to much confusion among children and parents.
I saw several of these as a child and the impression they made upon me was not so swell. They were cheaply animated and largely forgettable, filled with poor voice acting and limited animation, and worse, truly insipid songs that were enough to grate on my last nerve.
Being the devotee that I am of the Christmas season and the Scrooge story, I purchased this cartoon on the cheap and decided to review it. Even at under an hour in length, it was quite the chore.

The limited animation was bad enough in the previous films, but made worse here, as very little detail was given for the requisite amount of atmosphere and terror that the story needed. It's plain and dull looking, and the voice acting is completely uninspired. Whoever voiced Scrooge was simply going through the motions, with a broadly portrayed English accent that sounds false throughout. If one cannot believe in the Scrooge in such a film, that's a bad sign.
It probably doesn't help that the filmmakers choose to eliminate 90% of Dickens' dialogue in favor of crude simplifications, that assume that the intended audience is stupider than they think. Considering even the Muppets were wise enough to leave a great deal of the prose alone, should really say something about this production.
The scene with Jacob Marley's ghost fares the worst. The actor voicing the ghost sounds like a child's imitation of a ghost, a fat ghost at that. You know what I mean? I had this image of a kid with a pillow under his shirt, deepening his voice and trying to do an impression of his grandfather. Can you see it now? Does that strike fear in your heart? Well, Scrooge is pretty disturbed, though it could have been a result of the appalling song that the wandering spirits are forced to sing outside his window. You know, the damned souls that must wander eternity, forever trapped in limbo, living a virtual Hell? Yeah, they get a song!
More wonder occurs throughout, as we witness the Ghost of Christmas Past and Present, each one less interesting then what was presented in Magoo's Christmas Carol(1962), another animated adaption that I kept wishing I had chosen to rewatch instead. Even that had retained the prose and atmosphere.

Oh, this is such a bad movie. I'd be surprised if anyone felt anything at the conclusion of this thing, other than the urge to eject it from the DVD player and hurl it out in the snow. I've seen many poor adaptions of this story, which sort of goes with the territory. The film has very little regard for the moral of the story or any emotional impact. It fails not like the rancid Jim Carrey adaption from 2010, which decided to assault the viewer with a cavalcade of 3-D explosions and extremely broad comedy, but rather by being so utterly devoid of life. There's just nothing to this film. One feels that if they were to touch it's weak, emaciated frame, it would surely dissolve into dust.
The ending, which appears to have been lifted from the 1970 musical with Albert Finney, depicts Scrooge taking the Cratchit family on a shopping spree, illustrating that previous film's biggest weakness.
Whoever released this film just had no clue.
Christmas is over, yes, but you may still have the spirit with you and may wish to return to this story again. Please, do so. There are many wonderful adaptions to be seen, and unfortunately, they seem to be only be able to be enjoyed during this season. Watch the 1935 version with Seymour Hicks, criticize the MGM adaption from 1938, love the Sims version and adore the Scott one. Heck, visit Magoo and the Muppets, as well, but no matter what, stay away from this one like the plague. I'm warning you, reader, lest you suffer the consequences of being haunted by the spirits of Good Movies Past.

*I felt there was no need for a synopsis of the plot. You already know this story.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lost In Our World. Found In Another.

John Carter(2012)
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe

John Carter was probably one of the most anticipated science fiction/fantasy movies ever made. It's incredible to think that Edgar Rice Burroughs' popular series of adventure novels was never made into a single film. It did influence much through the last 100(!) years, though, including Star Wars, Avatar and the work of Ray Harryhausen. When this was announced to be produced by Pixar as their first live action film, much excitement spewed forth, which was soon squashed by the news that Disney had taken over control of the production. Disney has not been a very viable group of filmmakers in the last few decades, releasing mainly subpar entertainment. Pixar has had a string of nearly constant successes, so that was a bright spot. Now that Disney had the reigns, my doubts rose and were realized upon the film's release, when critical and box-office reports labelled this a disaster. And not just a disaster, but one of the most colossal in film history.

What went wrong? Why did John Carter fail with audiences? The results are numerous. For one thing, the title is atrocious. Most of the moviegoing public are just not familiar enough with the character and what he represents. It sounds too generic, like some courtroom drama or action picture, not a fantasy adventure. Rumors circulated that the original title, John Carter of Mars(which is visible at the end of the film) was dropped because of the failure of the previous year's dismal, Mars Needs Moms, though it makes little sense why one film's failure means a certain word can never be used again!
The original novel(the first one in the series of eleven books) was called, A Princess Of Mars, and that would have been preferable, but it's understandable why it was not used. "Princess" indicates a "girly" flick and not the kind of picture that would attract young boys, whom this was being geared towards, so at least that's understandable.
Another fault with the film was the marketing, which was virtually non-existent. So little was explained, including Carter's jumping through the air, that it simply bewildered audiences. Likewise, the idea that audiences would be interested in seeing the film that "inspired" several bigger pictures was a poor decision. If the film had been performing well, then acknowledging the past makes sense, but with such little information on the film's premise, it was a fatal error.

Is John Carter a bad film, though?
Honestly?, its not. Its a flawed film, for sure, with an inconsistent script and some florid performances and an overabundance of CGI effects, but its also a spectacle in the classic tradition with an epic sweep and some truly astounding moments and visuals on hand.
Taylor Kitsch has received the lion's share of blame for his performance, but I think he was adequate as Carter, more or less the man as Burroughs described him. His main enemy is the script, which saddles him with a tired back story about his family being wiped out when he was away at war and a social detachment in the character that seems more fitting to an antihero then what Carter's brand of heroism is supposed to represent. In the novel, Carter just ends up on Mars, which is surely improbable, and I can understand the need for an explanation. It's just too bad that by doing so, the new concept of Carter's transmigration is so reminiscent of Avatar(2009) that it may have caused more problems then was intended.
Overall, the actor performs well in the role, looking good in the action scenes, even if the sword-play gets a tad silly(it did in the novels, too) and the jumping a tad obtrusive. Kitsch comes off well, and shouldn't be reprimanded so badly, especially considering that he also was in the dead in the water(pun intended) Battleship, this very same year, a film deserving of the critical flak that has been tossed at it.

Lynn Collins is a decent Dejah Thoris, sci-fi's first super heroine, as well as being the template for nearly all genre sex symbols to follow, with her scant wardrobe, exotic looks and tough,yet sensitive, demeanor. Collins may appear too mature for some viewers, but is undeniably gorgeous in the part and handles herself just as well as Carter in the action scenes, even though contemporary revision is brought up, such as having her dismiss her one wardrobe as being vulgar, which the novel's princess would have scarcely noticed, nor have cared. This was probably indicative of nervous Disney heads who did not want a "too-nude" Princess in a family film, or it could be the product of that typical American puritanical mindset that sex and/or the way one dresses equates sex, in other words, is bad. It's a stupid thing to notice, I know, but I can't help it.
I'm also not certain of why she was made a warrior in this. Dejah was tough and could hold her own in combat, but it seems like overcompensation on the part of nervous screenwriters, fearful of the dreaded cry of "sexism!" as if a woman cannot be strong without resorting to hyper-masculine violence. You gotta love the simplicity of these guys. Part of what makes a character like Carter work, is that he just "does his thing," living out a perfect male fantasy, while also learning more about himself, beyond his own gender identity, though sexual politics probably don't have much of a role in escapist pulp like this. This is black and white storytelling and works best as that. Thankfully, the filmmakers don't push the envelope too much.
It's actually refreshing to see Carter and Thoris married at film's conclusion, as it's such a rarity in the overly cynical films of today, though we are thankfully spared the Princess giving birth to an egg.

I liked the leads. They had chemistry and they were great looking. And so were the aliens! Tars Tarkas is a wonderful character, but sadly has little to do. One of the film's biggest flaws is that they just don't delve enough into the background of the characters and Tarkas is one that could have used more touches. Willem Dafoe plays him(or voices him, I guess) and he lends that great presence of his, which combined with the great visual design(pretty true to the story) actually works pretty well. It would be great to see how this character develops over the course of multiple movies, but it's doubtful that will ever happen.
Credit must be given to the filmmakers for actually trying to remain as true to the original stories as possible, even creating a Mars that never existed, except in the mind of a wacky author. The look of the film feels like an homage not just to Burroughs, but to 100 years of science fiction, ranging from the films of Ray Harryhausen to the art of Frank Frazetta. As much nitpicking as I was throughout the picture, I also found myself enjoying a great deal of it. A smile creased my lips more than once and I got lost in the story many times. Films, especially this type, rarely do this nowadays, and the wonder of John Carter indicates a success, not a failure. It's not a perfect film, or even a good one. It's passable, at best, but has enough strong points to recommend it and John Carter leaves us feeling good, which is ultimately what such escapism is supposed to.

Usually, when I write a review, I give a detailed synopsis. I guess I have been away for awhile, because I plumb forgot! Oh well. I suppose most people reading this blog would be familiar with the story and the characters. I'm certain that regular readers(are you out there?) are also familiar with my fondness for the female form and i'm sure that it's no surprise that a younger version of me was raised with novels like A Princess Of Mars. As a kid, I dreamed of going to Mars, finding my own Dejah Thoris and mowing down hordes of aliens with swords and guns. This stuff was perfect fodder for the adolescent dreamer and still is, regardless of the age. Even, in my 20s, I still derive enjoyment from these stories, praying that one day, i'll see a film adaption of Burroughs' The Monster Men or The Lost Continent, though the failure of John Carter makes that dream more remote.
I'm being forgetful again, my apologies. The plot?
John Carter was a Confederate soldier who finds himself in a cave and fights an alien with an amulet that takes him to Mars, where he goes on various adventures, finds a beautiful princess and fights lots of aliens. He even returns home, so he can tell Edgar Rice Burroughs to look after his body while he's away.
I couldn't make stuff like that up. Only in my dreams.

Below are an assortment of stills from the film, as well as various artist depictions of the story, including the curvaceous Dejah Thoris, as well as Lynn Collins, in a shot from Allure magazine, that reminds me that Mars is probably not such a bad place to be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Diary Of A Madman?

I, Madman(1989)
Director: Tibor Takacs
Cast: Jenny Wright, Clayton Rohner, Randall William

By the end of the 1980s, the horror film was nothing but a dry husk. Like the vampire found so often in the genre, it had been sucked dry by large droughts of creativity, inspired by increasingly inane sequels and the rising slasher film. The horror film was simplified and dumbed down and for many, no longer interesting or scary. Few past 1986 were really in the classic vein and fewer still, were even interesting. Many got lost in the shuffle, one of these titles was I, Madman, an ambitious low-budget film with an inventive script and enough originality and humor to make it fresh today.

The film begins with a 1950s setting and a mysterious doctor who leaves his apartment, which subsequently gets checked by the super, who finds a strange, stop-motion demon that devours him. Meanwhile, beautiful Jenny Wright(the vampire babe from Near Dark(1987) is in the next room, wearing a gorgeous nightgown. The demon bursts through the wall was just a dream. Jenny is at home, reading a scary book and let her imagination run away with her. It's a great opening and plays both with genre conventions and manages to scare us and make us laugh, equally. Inspired somewhat by the nightmare premise of A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984), this film deals with Wright, who works at a book store and becomes a fan of obscure horror author, Malcolm Brand, who dies in mysterious ways. She tracks down his rare book, "I, Madman," and finds that the murders depicted in the book are happening to people close to her and that the protagonist, a whacked out doctor, who has cut off his face, sewing on new pieces from his victims, in order to win the love of the love of his life, which turns out to be Wright!

I, Madman is a truly unique and bizarre film. It does borrow elements from contemporary titles, but also has an atmosphere all it's own, recalling classic Film Noir, with it' seedy city settings and a feeling for the classic horror film with a villain clearly patterned after The Phantom of the Opera. It's such a twisted and fun film that its a bit perplexing that it didn't receive more critical acclaim, as well as, more bizarrely, a cult following.
The idea of a monster unleashed from a book by a mad, occult-driven writer, is reminiscent of the later, Lovecraft-inspired, In The Mouth Of Madness(1994) which is a somewhat similar film, also involving a writer whose creations appear to take on a life of their own.

At times, this can be a rather sadistic movie. Randall William Cook's subdued and disturbing villain aside, his butchering of his victims is very creepy, especially the murder of a beautiful redhead, whose hair ends up adorning his scalp. Much of this can be very uneasy and it's suspected that a good portion of this was cut to avoid a harsher rating, perhaps another reason why this film has remained obscure. The script also highlights a few glaring issues, notably that cliche where nobody believes the hero/heroine, especially when they tell stories to the authorities that nobody in their right mind, would ever buy. The police interrogation scene is indicative of this main weakness.
However, Jenny Wright is a likable and smart leading lady, being both beautiful and resourceful, while remaining vulnerable and relatable. It's sort of a relief to see an intelligent heroine not reduced to becoming a Sigourney Weaver clone for the umpteenth time, but actually be in fear and display real mental distress at an obviously overbearing situation.
Clayton Rohner gets the thankless role of her detective boyfriend, but is decent in the part, if not remarkable. Cook is effective as the madman, but is used far too seldom and it would have been interesting to see a film that revolved more around his twisted character. His character combines traits previously seen by Lon Chaney Sr. and Vincent Price, but without the campy touch that the latter preferred.

This is probably no great movie, but it does deserve more than it gets as the script is fun and the film is generally a fun viewing. I, Madman is a real curio-piece, but deserves more love, especially from fans of the 80s horror film. I'd rank this with other late 80s forgotten horrors, such as Ken Russel's The Lair Of The White Worm(1988), The Blob(1988) and Pumpkinhead(1987) for near-classic titles that clearly deserve a wider and more appreciative audience.I certainly had a good time.
Not such a bad one to dig up for the Halloween season.