Friday, November 25, 2011

Time Bandits (1980)
UK --- fantasy

Dir: Terry Gilliam

This is one of my top 5 all-time favorite films. I have fond memories of watching this in the theaters, the holiday season of 1981. I was the perfect age to watch a movie like this, a children's film that didn't quite speak down to its intended audience, yet could totally entertain the adult. I'm amazed at how it stands up, and how much more I see in it as an adult, something only the Looney Tunes cartoons did for me. The film that probably gave Terry Gilliam more leeway into Hollywood, with cementing his rather odd cartoonish style of film making, "Time Bandits", was a welcome addition in a time replete of science fiction and fantasy movies. Hollywood was surfing on "Star Wars" mania, and churning out any and every kind of potential film of the ilk, including "Conan the Barbarian", "Blade Runner", "Tron", "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial", "The Road Warrior", "Escape From New York", et cetera. Yeah, "Time Bandits" could have easily gotten lost in that shuffle, had it not been so unique and came as the first in a string of Gilliam favorites.

For me "Time Bandits" is simply about the unlimited imagination of a child's mind. It is a snapshot taken from a child's perspective, from beginning to end. Though Gilliam very clearly paints his films with precision, this one is DaVinci using crayons. As Gilliam is stated to having based it on an idea about thieves who rob stuff from the past and take it to the future. The very fact it's a time travel film loosened from the confines of strict scientific rules is just refreshing as all get out. It shares in part of the films appeal, I believe. Python alum Michael Palin returns to acting duty and also helped sculpt the script. Essentially, the film is about a young boy named Kevin, who is neglected by couch potato parents who seem to barely acknowledge his existence. Kevin however, is a very imaginative kid, based simply on what's in his room.

At first, he imagines a shining knight on horse back galloping out of his closet and straight through his bedroom, or what becomes a forest and his bed in it. The very next night, Kevin awaits whatever else could possibly emerge from the wardrobe, and he is barraged by a group of midgets who appear right out of his own closet. They at first mistake him, and his glaring flashlight, for someone else, someone important. That is until they realize, he's not who they thought. They go after him and quickly realize he's just a boy, and in the scuffle happen to push one of the walls of his bedroom out. Just in time too, as the one they mistake him for, the Supreme Being, comes looking for them demanding the return of his time map. Kevin runs along with them in his bathrobe (a homage to "Hitch hiker's Guide to the Galaxy"?), and they fall into the time hole taking them to the time of the French revolution. They quickly happen upon Napoleon (played by great genre actor Ian Holm) himself, and mistaken for a troupe of performers. Napoleon is enamored with people shorter than himself, and befriends them, while the gang steal him blind. While the gang make off with the loot, they find the time portal to medieval times, and run into none-other-than some of Robin Hood's Merry Men. Meanwhile, Kevin begins to become none-too impressed with the gang of incredulous little people and their self-proposed leader Randall. Hood (played excellently by John Cleese) of course, secures their stolen goods for himself to distribute to the poor.

At this point, their arch-nemesis, Evil Genius (Utilizing Sam Peckinpah alum David Warner at his high-browed Brit-accented evil best), is seen watching the diminutive gang quarrel among themselves over the map, an item he covets for himself. Confined to the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, Evil Genius seizes an opportunity to get them to his own location, so he can obtain the map for himself. He hypnotizes one of the gang, namely Og, to convince the gang that within the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness lies "The most fabulous object in the world". However, the Supreme Being makes another appearance beseeching them for the return of the map. They find not one, but two time portals open up at the same time, and Kevin goes in the wrong one, sending him to back to ancient Greece. Now separated from the time bandits, he comes across the mythological King Agamemnon (played by Sean Connery), whom he quickly befriends as a father figure. Before long, though, the time bandits do catch up with him determined to spirit him away on their next journey, much to the reluctantance of Kevin. They end up on the SS Titanic (of course THAT Titanic),where Randall explains to Kevin his desire to seek out the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness for the aforementioned object. The problem lies in the fact the Fortress is not located on the map. When the Titanic sinks and the gang is out on the ocean, Randall surmises the only way to reach it is to simply believe, and sure enough a whirlpool opens (caused by Evil Genius) sending them into the time of legends where they come upon giants, trolls, and eventually the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness. The confrontation between Kevin and the time bandits ends up with them losing the map to Evil Genius, and needing to relie on their wits to escape the clutches of Evil.

"Time Bandits", in my opinion, is the film that probably put Terry Gilliam (pardon the pun) on the map. He cemented his visual style of low camera angles, shot in wide screen, multiple celebrity appearances, and a protagonist that the viewer may not feel all that comfortable in trusting by the time the credits roll. Though Gilliam would return to the sub genre of time travel with 1995's "Twelve Monkey's" starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, this film didn't quite take the scientific aspect so serious. It even features ex-Beatle, George Harrison's theme song on the end credits, which has his usual catchy guitar riffs and some interesting lyrics if you pay attention.

Gilliam has since claimed "Time Bandits" as the first in his trilogy of ages as "Time Bandits" is about childhood, "Brazil" is about middle-aged, and "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen" is about old age. For me, one of the little enjoyable little tidbits I noticed about the film is David Warner. An actor who, back then was taking many villainous roles just because. I had first seen him in this film. Later on, I had seen him in "Time After Time" when it aired on television, and then of course "Tron". What's significant about these roles is he went from playing Jack the Ripper in "Time After Time" which resulted in him being stuck in "infinity", then going to play Evil Genius in "Time Bandits", in which his character states at one point the need to master computers, in which he will in "Tron" as Dillinger/ Master Controller. Hmmmm. Yeah, I leave it up to interpretation. Taking cues from legends, myths, fairy tales, and children's literature, Terry Gilliam evokes everything from "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe", "The Wizard of Oz", and "Alice in Wonderland". With all that added there are full touches of humor that can be enjoyed by the child and the adult, and a non-scientific, care-free journey throughout time, "Time Bandits" is an enjoyable family film.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) (1981)
AUSTRALIA --- science fiction

Dir: George Miller

Has humanity ever been optimistic of the future? My answer is a resounding NO. Utopian futures in all sparks of imagination has never really been explored in literature, film, or even religious beliefs. Most religions don't view this earth as a place that can be redeemed. Most revolutionaries and dictators with Utopian ideologies were bent on bringing their reigns about through devastation. Wherever a idealistic future is depicted  their is still another darker side to it. Logically speaking, for every utopia must be a dystopia for someone. In the "Mad Max" series, the only ones enjoying the desolate future are the ones of complete moral decay.

Quite possibly one of cinemas very best sequels, writer/ director George Miller's "The Road Warrior" doesn't just repeat the same old story from the original film, it extrapolates on the theme of the dystopian future that eventually deteriorates into a completely blasted wasteland. In the previous film, "Mad Max", we had a glimpse into an uncertain future that clearly wasn't very comely, and was in such disrepair our hero became something of an anti-hero just to survive. Now catching up with him after the horrific life-altering events of the last film, we find Max Rockatansky a lone drifter and a shadow of the man he was. His only companions is a loyal Shepherd dog (I believe may have been the puppy from the last film), a two-gauge sawed-off shotgun, and of course his suped-up Interceptor which is no longer the shiny black vehicle of the last film but a dusty sun-bleached vehicle that looks just as worn-out as its owner. He isn't alone for too long, however, as his ever-present biker adversaries appear very early on in the film, and are just as much a threat as they were in the last film.

He has a very short confrontation with the biker gang when he scavenges some fuel from a wrecked vehicle, but the encounter ends in peace. To add to the collection of allies, the film throws in another player. When Max spots a one-man gyro copter on the side of the road, he approaches it in hopes of siphoning some fuel. A quirky drifter (played by veteran Australian character actor Bruce Spence) gets the drop on him, but Max quickly turns the tables. The gyro captain reveals that he knows where to find an entire refinery of gasoline in a fortified compound of men and women fighting of the biker gangs. Max agrees to let him live if he leads him to the compound. When they arrive on a mountaintop overlooking the makeshift fort held up with around thirty individuals, Max stakes out the area to observe an opportune time to get to the oil without alerting the gangs. He and the gyro captain witness the biker gang ruthlessly kill some of the inhabitants who tried to escape, Max heads out to save just one as his entry into the compound. They obviously distrust him and see him as a threat, until the marauders and their muscles-bound leader Humongous gives them an ultimatum. Max sees the makeshift community, which includes a resourceful burrowing feral child with a razor-sharp boomerang could use some assistance. He offers to help the group in exchange for a full tank of gas for his car and whatever he can haul with him.

He goes on a night-bound mission to get them a truck to haul an oil tanker out of the compound, and meets up with the gyro copter captain again. On a very dangerous and breakneck drive back to the compound, due to him being atacked by the marauders just miles within destination, Max makes good on his deal. He then later goes back on the road on his lonesome, and is once again attacked by Humungous' ruthless biker gang, destroying his car, and leaving him for dead in a scene which mirrors the ending of the first film complete with a biker gang member adorned in a highway police uniform. The gyro captain rescues him, and takes him back to the compound, where they come up with a last ditch effort with their gasoline, and Max comes in as a good Samaritan one last time.

In this film, Mad Max becomes more of a mythic hero than a one-dimensional vengeance seeking man above the law. The law clearly has failed him, and in this film, George Miller clearly takes his cues from American Westerns such as "Shane", "Fort Apache", and of course "Fistful of Dollars" and it's Samurai progenitor "Yojimbo". No such flavor is wasted in this film, as Miller raises the mythic level by adding inspiration from Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" (a book Miller says he read between filming Mad Max and this film). Multiple storytelling techniques are added to make the character of Max Rockatansky much more fleshed out, if by only fleshing out the characters surounding him such as the gyro captain, the feral child, and the community within the compound. George Miller continued his "Mad Max" trilogy with "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", which concentrated specifically on what the first two films had been hinting at, the future is in the children.

Though, the entire trilogy has one giant flaw in the fact they have nary a hint of Aborignines. Oh sure, the children in the third film even look like they're painted to be Aborigine, but they are not. So, it makes you look at the films with another eye, in wondering if the film is about the fears and regrets of Anglo-Colonization rather than a fear of nuclear destruction as other films. Interestingly enough, John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" was released the same year, but "The Road Warrior" kinda had a chance to be about more than that. In one of the undercurrent themes of the film, Max represents a lone anti-hero, cynical enough to not really want to get involved in the last vestiges of what appears like the human race or a decent community. On the outside is everything that goes against community; men on motorcycles (since "The Wild One" and "Easy Rider" a symbol of rebellion), men with men as sexual partners (homosexuality, this was actually brought out in the first film but has even been alluded to more bluntly in copycat films like "Warriors of the Wasteland"), and the lack of starvation not so much of food but gasoline, (the precious juice as the narrator once put it), which fuels our crutch of machines. Miller is supposed to return to the Mad Max universe with "Mad Max: Fury Road", which we will wait and see what Max will get into this time.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bakjwi (Thirst) (2009)
SOUTH KOREA --- horror

Dir: Chan-Wook Park

Vampire films nowadays are dime a dozen. Over the decades of films' existence, there have been a myriad of interpretations for audience consumption ranging from genre-bending mash-ups of everything from comedy to animation. The key vampire movies that usually keep the genre fresh are the ones that return to the core issues of just what a vampire is, a dead immortal suffering to stay alive. I had first saw "Bakjwi" (translated as "bat") aka "Thirst" within just a few months of watching Sweden's "Let the Right One In", and realized I had just gotten hit with a double whammy of fresh new visions of our favorite kind of nocturnal blood-suckers.

This South Korean film, from director Chan-Wook Park, (of Old Boy fame) takes a strikingly evocative peek into what it is to become a vampire. However, it also looks at the insatiable desire of lust, love, adultery, and the destruction it ultimately brings to one Catholic priest cursed with the infamous disease. Loosely based on an 1867 French novel titled "Thérèse Raquin", Bakjwi (Thirst) explores the tale of Sang-hyun (played by the hardest working Korean actor in the world, Song Kang-ho), a young Catholic priest, who becomes disenchanted with his duties as a faithful servant to God. His visit with a hospitalized obese patient, Hyo-sung, pushes him into disbelief when the man goes comatose. He asks a superior blind wheelchair-bound priest, who has looked over him since he was an orphaned child, to send him to the Emmanuel Labs in Africa. Sang-hyun volunteers himself as a subject to an experimental virus called the Emmanuel Virus, which has the patients to a process of slow degenerative state of boils and blisters, which infect the internal organs ultimately killing them. Sang-hyun, however miraculously survives.

Sang-hyun becomes something of a saint, and many come from afar just to have his prayers over them. when an old woman, Lady Ra, comes to him, begging him to pray for her cancer-stricken son Kang-woo, he respectfully pays the man a visit in the hospital. He soon discovers that he and Kang-woo (played by Park director pet Shin Ha-kyun) are old childhood friends, as the mother reminds him he used to come over for noodles. He reunites with the family over a game of mahjong and a young woman named Tae-ju, who appears a sheltered repressed young housewife (once raised as a sister) to Kang-woo. Sang-hyun visits their home and catches up on their lives, finding out about Kang-woo and Tae-ju, who is stuck with the over-bearing mother and the "Baby Huey" husband and mistreated by the whole family. Sang-hyun frequently visits and when he suddenly has an adverse reaction to sunlight and the symptoms of the EV virus returns to him, he quickly realizes he has become a vampire. Sang-hyu develops a deep attraction for her, and they do carry on a torrid adulterous affair. Eventually Sang-hyun reveals what he truly is to her as they sneak into the hospital room of the comatose Hyo-sung, the man he has been siphoning blood from. At first, Tae-ju is of course frightened, but she soon requests from Sang-hyun for him to turn her into a vampire as well. His backsliding, of course, begins to worsen.

Soon, Tae-ju requests to be turned into a vampire as well. Not long after, Chang-Hyun's own surrogate father, the blind priest also requests to be turned, leaving him with no choice but to step down from the priesthood. This begins his downward slide into sin, as his affair leads to murdering Kang-woo. Both he and Tae-ju's tragic love story goes from a lustful affair to absolute mayhem as they go on a murdering spree which will ultimately cost them their lives.

Chan-Wook Park's "Thirst" isn't a fantastic vampire film, but it most certainly brings yet another fresh take on the most famous horror sub genre ever. Chan-Wook Park direction is very smart and meticulous, overlapping dialogue with other scenes, and subtle moments of suspense and black comedy like Sang-hyu getting sick from the smell of garlic and saying he had a whiff of blood, sending Tae-ju running to the bathroom to look for a tampon.Kudos for the young Kim Ok-bin, whose slippery performance as Tae-ju keeps the audience engaged with her demure beauty and her eventual manic femme fatale actions. The key factors into this film besides the ethnic South Korean flavor, is the infusion of faith and a man of faith's battle with a very sinful disease. It is almost an essay on that alone, but if anyone is interested in seeking a film with a better take on that aspect of the vampire, watch the anit-blaxploition film "Ganja & Hess". The vampire has always been an inverse of Jesus Christ, with many references to his legendary existence.

- Just like Christ, the vampire was once alive and he rises from the dead.

- Just like Christ, the vampire becomes makes followers.

- Just like Christ, the vampire's "spirit", by bite, is passed on to others, often exponentially.

- Just like Christ, many Christian's profess to be "saved", by his blood.

Many believe that the vampire lore was partly created as an anti-Christian allegory anyway. It can be no mistake that the crucifix is a key weapon against the creature of the night, but that rule apparently does not apply to the universe in this film. "Thirst" is definitely a great addition to the vampire sub genre. Unlike Christ, however, they are not as immortal. Eventually, like all men they are dust in the wind.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nochnoi Dozor (Night Watch) (2005)
RUSSIA --- fantasy

Dir: Timur Bekamambetov

“Sorcerers in Moscow . . . silly.” Anton Gorodestsky

The anemic Russian cinema movement has returned, with a bang. "Nochoi Dozor" (or Night Watch) was the top grossing film in Russia in 2004, making it the first blockbuster in post Soviet Union Russia. When I first read about Night Watch in the papers glaring at the riveting movie poster, I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued when I found out it was the first of a trilogy. I didn’t get a chance to see it in its limited U.S. release, so I had to wait for the DVD. The wait was well worth it. I was at once astounded at not only its unique premise, but as a film, in its innovative visual amalgam of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Blade” films, with a little bit of the vibe of “Underworld” and “Ghostbusters” thrown in for good measure. I finished the movie and I wanted more from this world. I immediately went scouring the net for info on who came up with this terrific cinematic wonder.

Nochnoi Dozor is definitely no Ptushko or Tarkovsky film. Director Timur Bekamambetov gives an adrenaline shot to this film in every frame with stunning visual effects that are not used like condiments on a bland burger like some of Hollywood’s films, but are used to tell the story. The 1998 novel, by science fiction/fantasy author Sergey Lukyanenko, is slightly different from the fim in story structure. The 2004 film unweaves the existence of two powerful forces among us; the “Others”. One is light and the other is dark. They control the day and the night. But many years ago, they came to a truce. Geser (according to the author is named after Gesser the Tibetan hero of legend), the lord of light, and Zavulon, the general of darkness agree to never give any new “Others” the right to freewill – to be what they want. Be that good, or evil. Hmmm, yes, I detect some post communist controlled USSR inspiration there.

They also set up two separate mystical factions that exist in the world, still until today, complete with rules. Basically they were set up to make sure neither breaks the truce. The light forces became known as the Night Watch, while the dark became Day Watch. Our hero in the story is Anton Gorodetsky, who in the film we see him try to win his ex-lover back through the assistance of a witch. The witch is an Other and has just broken a rule of the Nightwatch. But in the process, we find out Anton happens to be an Other. He becomes a Light Mage, as he is a magician.

Fast forward years later, we find that Anton is indeed working for the Night Watch, and his latest mission is to find a vampire who has broken the truce. A vampire has bitten a woman, turning her into one of them. But she must feed, and the vampire has her lure a young boy for her consumption. Anton seeks the assistance of his neighbors who happen to be vampires too. He must think and behave like a vampire in order to find and track down the boy. This is considered to be field work by the Night Watch, and Anton dislikes it. In the subway, Anton runs into another problem; a woman he believes is an Other, but he lets it go in order to complete his current mission with the boy. Upon finding the vampire, his attempt to apprehend the vampires goes sideways as one of them is killed and the chick escapes. This doesn’t make things good for the truce any better, on either side. Anton returns to Geser mortally wounded and on top of this, Geser takes a look into Anton’s mind finding the woman on the train. He discovers that this woman is about to bring about the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Zavulon is designing an elaborate plot to take advantage of an ancient prophecy that tells of a Great One, that will choose to become an Other that will either destroy the light within or battle the surrounding darkness. It is that choice that will decide the fate of the world.

The film is intriguing with its plot, and it’s at once jaw-dropping to watch the special effects utilized to the hilt. Timur Bekamambetov has created an ultra-slick and highly stylized "New Weird" film. I can watch the movie over and over. What’s even more exciting is that Fox Searchlight funneled (of course) an American appeasing version, and that there is an original Russian cut out there to be had. KOOL! I also have to track down the Region 0 PAL 3-discer set available, and maybe even the novel at some point. This website is an English ready fan site and is pretty informative of the Night Watch saga: A sequel was made, but as of this writing, the trilogy is incomplete.