Sunday, March 20, 2016

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

Today we have the dubious honor of recommending the worst version of the best movie ever made - not the best science fiction movie, not the best Harrison Ford movie, the best movie. The Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner is, on the other hand, what made me love this movie in the first place. It's also the only version available for streaming currently, since Amazon Prime took the Final Cut off its rotation a while back, so it'll have to do.

Blade Runner is a movie that predated and either influenced or predicted many, many trends in both the real world and in fiction, even if, like most SF, its timeline was way off. I can barely look at a city skyline at night without thinking of this movie. The way lights are arranged on top of police cars? That's because of Blade Runner. It was heavily influential on manga and anime in the 1980s, most notably Bubblegum Crisis (which featured a band called Priss and the Replicants) and Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell, which was a big influence on near-future SF in its own right. William Gibson was writing Neuromancer when this movie came out, and he was afraid he'd be accused of stealing from it, since it is essentially cyberpunk before cyberpunk was even a term. (Most cinematic scholars - a group among which I can hardly count myself - actually see it as spiritual kin to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.) At the time, it was just a neo-noir detective story set in the dystopian future of Los Angeles, 2017, loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It opened to mixed reviews and didn't make much cash at the box office.

In this future, the Earth is in its final downward spiral. It's overpopulated. Radioactive dust from the atmosphere is settling on its surface. People with the means to do so are relocating to off-world colonies, where android replicants are used as slave labor. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is an ex-Blade Runner, a replicant hunter whose job it was to "retire" replicants who went rogue and found their way to Earth. Replicants are faster, smarter and stronger - but they have a four-year expiration date before they seize up and shut down for good. Their defining psychological trait seems to be a lack of empathy, but this is the only way in which they differ from their human creators, and a psychological test is needed to figure out if someone is a replicant, if such a situation should arise. In order to counterbalance the strain of their short lifespan and the harsh conditions under which they "live."

So when a gang of replicants kill the crew of an off-world shuttle and go to ground on Earth, Deckard is brought out of his own retirement to track them down. Their leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is the latest Nexus-6 model, essentially superior in every way to an ordinary human. He and the other replicants - Pris (Daryl Hannah), Zorah (Joanna Cassidy) and Leon (Brion James) - find assistance in J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a reclusive genetic designer who is human, but also suffers from a condition that makes him age at an accelerated pace, giving him something in common, as Roy points out, with the synthetic humanoids whose genetic makeup he crafted. Roy's ultimate goal is to reach his creator, Tyrell, who designed the minds of the replicants and can - or so Roy believes - extend their lifespans. Meanwhile, Deckard becomes involved in a very questionable relationship with Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant designed by Tyrell and implanted with the memories of his niece.

None of this is going to end well. It's not a happy movie. It is, however, probably the closest thing anyone has ever, or will ever, come to making a perfect film. I can't do this movie justice with a review. I can't tell you how much it's influenced me, how many times I've watched it or what it means to me - it's just too much. I think I own most versions of it. I have the Theatrical Cut on VHS, DVD and Criterion Collection laserdisc. I have the Director's Cut on DVD. I have the 30th Anniversary Edition, including all cuts of the film, including the workprint and the 2007 Final Cut, on limited edition HD DVD (it comes in a Voight-Kampff Machine case with a police spinner) and Bluray (it comes with a silver origami unicorn). It's at the top of my "top 10 movies of all time" list. Everything about it just clicks perfectly into place, from the incredible soundtrack by Vangelis to the singularly bleak urban atmosphere.

At its core, behind the detective story and the cat-and-mouse hunt as Roy tracks a wounded Deckard through Sebastian's creepy apartment building (the Bradbury Building, an iconic piece of architecture that's been featured in many a film and TV show) at the end, Blade Runner is an examination of what it means to be human. Deckard, after a career that basically consisted of murdering escaped android slaves, is dead inside. It would be easier to count the scenes in which he isn't drinking. Roy and Pris, meanwhile, mourn their rapidly dwindling lives. Between a man with many years ahead of him that he doesn't even want, and a group of people who never even had a chance to live, who are we really meant to sympathize with?

The differences between the Theatrical Cut and the others are mainly the result of executive meddling. There's a "hard-boiled detective" voiceover that provides some backstory and clarification, but is ultimately just not very well-written and breaks up the atmosphere. There's a long-standing urban legend that Ford read the lines badly on purpose, but he says he did the best with what they gave him, and I can believe that. The ending is also radically different; the Theatrical Cut ends on an disjointedly optimistic note that's entirely the result of focus-group testing, while every other version of the movie keeps the ending's tense ambiguity. And the last big thing that changes between cuts is the amount of evidence for the notion that Deckard himself is a replicant. I've been on both sides of this argument, and my current position is that it's unlikely. Yes, there's the origami unicorn left behind by Deckard's mysterious partner Gaff (Edward James Olmos), which seems to be a statement that he's gone over Deckard's potentially false memories and dreams and will be hunting him and Rachael wherever they go, but on the other hand, why create a replicant whose physical capabilities are inferior to those of the synthetics he's hunting? There's also something to be said for the idea that a definitive answer to the question of Deckard's nature would go against the entire point of the film.

So, by all means, watch the Theatrical Cut on Netflix, but consider picking up the Final Cut somewhere along the line. This review was a long time coming. I'll never be happy with it.

It should also be noted that Rutger Hauer's speech at the end was ad-libbed. It's an absolutely amazing piece of dialogue, probably the most moving death scene in all of cinema. The last words of a man who wanted only to live and to have his existence acknowledged.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Who Are We Going To Call?

Ghostbusters (1984)

This July, we're getting a new Ghostbusters movie. I'm always wary of remakes and reboots, but it seems like this one at least has its heart in the right place. We'll see how it turns out this summer, but in the mean time, you can watch the 1984 original on Amazon Prime.

Ivan Reitman's horror-comedy is one of those movies that's had such a massive influence on American pop culture that you can't even point to one particular aspect that's become ingrained in our everyday lives. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis' script is brilliant, the entire movie is eminently quotable, it's got a wonderful soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and one of the most iconic theme songs ever courtesy of Ray Parker, Jr., and it features arguably career-best performances from some of the funniest people from those bygone days when SNL was funny, with a memorable supporting cast, especially Rick Moranis, William Atherton and Annie Potts. Ghostbusters is the movie I'll always think of first when I think of Bill Murray, before he entered the "melancholy bastard" phase of his career with Rushmore and Lost in Translation.

You've probably already seen it already. It's a distinct possibility that the only way you haven't seen Ghostbusters is if you've actively avoided it, somehow. It's amazing how well it all works. The actors play off of one another without missing a single beat, and it's funnier than any other three comedies I can name put together. They don't waste any time on backstory, but you get a solid sense of each character from the second they show up. Venkman is a complete and total asshole, and one of the best things about the movie is that he's basically just as much of an asshole at the end. Ray is the credulous, well-meaning paranormal scientist, Egon takes the science way too far and is completely disconnected from anything resembling reality, and the always-awesome Ernie Hudson joins the group as Winston, who's ex-military rather than an academic, but might be the only level head among the entire bunch.

Also, I can't tell you how much this movie scared the living crap out of me when I was a kid. Just look at that thing. If there's one thing that worries me about the remake, it's that CGI, in general, just isn't frightening, there's nothing "there," the fakery is more obvious, and one balancing act that Ghostbusters has always achieved very well is sharp humor juxtaposed with genuine frights. The ghosts in the original are seriously terrifying. Gozer the Traveler is a distinctly Lovecraftian entity with no true form and a set of bizarre rules by which it's summoned. There's even something fucked up and distinctly unsettling about Slimer - I think it's those beady little yellow eyes. Bleh, just look at him. Ugly little puke. Originally, this was going to be a much crazier and weirder movie, with time travel and a bunch of other stuff, and I'm glad they kept it sort of grounded in a recognizable then-present-day New York City.

On a side note, one unequivocally positive thing to come out of the hype surrounding the Ghostbusters remake is that we're apparently getting our first Hi-C Ecto Cooler juice boxes in over 15 years. Ghostbusters contributed enormously to the over-saturation of slime-fascination toys that were prevalent in the 1980s. There are a lot of things I wish kids these days (obviously, I'm shaking my cane as I say that) would have the benefit of experiencing, but the top two might be 1. arcades, and 2. slime. I had Gak, Mad Scientist, Ghostbusters Ectoplasm and half a dozen other probably-toxic slime toys when I was young, and I hope that sort of thing makes a comeback.

Available On: Amazon Prime.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Cropsey (2009)

The current popularity of Netflix's Making a Murderer reminded me of Cropsey, a documentary by Josh Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio that doubles as a creepy horror film and an exploration of urban legends. Growing up on Staten Island, which is apparently an all-around terrifying place, Josh and Barbara heard the legend of Cropsey - a word of uncertain origins that came to be synonymous in New York State with any violent maniac, but also took on a sort of life of its own, often referring to a specific person. Cropsey is the boogeyman, the man with a hook for a hand, the axe-wielding escaped mental patient who prowled all those areas kids and teens weren't supposed to mess around in. The same legend, told around campfires as early as the 1960s, provided the inspiration for the early slasher films The Burning and Madman.

This particular legend turned out to be true, in a sense, when the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger, in 1987. The manhunt led to Andre Rand, a former custodian at the Willowbrook State School - a severely overcrowded and understaffed state-sponsored institution for the intellectually disabled in which students lived under truly hellish conditions and suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the school's staff until the late 1980s, after over two decades of controversy and scandal. It was Willowbrook that made a name for Geraldo Rivera and earned him a Peabody Award after he conducted a series of investigations into the school's deplorable conditions in 1972.

Rand, born Frank Rushan, lived in the woods of Staten Island and haunted the derelict buildings of the Greenbelt and the tunnels beneath Willowbrook, where he once worked, where Cropsey lurked, and where rumors of cults, devil-worship and human trafficking took root. Suspected of kidnapping and murdering five disabled children over the course of fifteen years, he was, to the local residents of the island, the boogeyman made flesh. Cropsey, the legend come to life. He remains in prison - but there's still a great deal of speculation as to whether he committed the crimes in the first place. Evidence was a combination of circumstance and hearsay, and witness testimony was unreliable, sometimes nothing more than "Well, he sure looked like a murderer to me."

There were no answers at the time of Rand's trial. There may never be answers. The people of Staten Island may never know where the bodies of several of Rand's alleged victims are buried, and they may never know if Rand was wrongly accused of the crimes despite a prior criminal record that involved the kidnapping of eleven minors in a school bus, none of whom were harmed. Cropsey is a documentary focused on personal truths and the eagerness with which people believe exactly what they're told if it allows for catharsis and closure. As one interviewee says, he could show a person a picture of Andre rand and tell them he's a mass murderer, and that person would of course say "Yes, I can tell, he's a monster." And he could show that same person the same picture and tell them "This man saved six kids from a fire," and that person would say "Yes, I can tell just looking at him. He's a good man."

Zeman admits, in the end, that the movie found no more answers than anyone else - all it did was to provide another chapter in the Cropsey legend for future generations to discuss around campfires and in old buildings at night, where the hook man or the axe murderer might, in fact, be waiting for his next victim. We invent our own monsters in order to avoid facing the ugly truth, that people, just people, are capable of unimaginable evil. "The power of the urban legend," Zeman says, "is that it doesn't claim to be the truth, but rather that is says the truth is a range of possibilities, and it's the audience who must decide.

"So pick one."

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

I Want To Believe

The X-Files (1993-2002)

The Midnight Channel is normally a movie review blog. However, with The X-Files back on the air this weekend, and the whole series (bar the two movies) available on streaming services, how could I talk about anything else?

You probably know the basic setup. FBI Agent Fox Mulder is a conspiracy theorist whose unconventional beliefs and methods have resulted in him being stuffed away in a basement office where he investigates the X-Files, an ever-growing collection of unsolved cases with a possible paranormal or extraterrestrial element first started by J. Edgar Hoover. At the beginning of the series, Agent Dana Scully is brought in, ostensibly to debunk and disgrace Mulder's work. They clash at first, but over the course of the series, they develop a complex relationship and uncover a vast governmental conspiracy. The show was divided up into two types of episodes: "Myth Arc" episodes, which chronicled the central conspiracy and a coming alien invasion and generally fell apart as it went on because series creator Chris Carter didn't really know where it was going; and "Monster of the Week" episodes, where the agents investigated a one-shot threat, be it a genetic human/fluke hybrid preying on sewer workers, a man who projects his dreams into reality to deadly effect, or just a family of particularly depraved hillbillies. There was a memorable recurring cast. Let's go over the central players.

Agent Fox Mulder

Mulder was actually my least favorite member of the central cast. When he starts out, he's a bit of a dick, and he gets much more entertaining when the series is comfortable enough with its characters to start making him the butt of a good amount of its jokes. There's a certain element of self-deprecation in his character, poking fun at the show's audience through its main character. Mulder is a determined agent whose suspicions are often correct, but he also calls phone sex lines, grandstands whenever he's given an audience, owns about 10 of the same black suit, and jerks off to videos of Bigfoot.

Agent Dana Scully

Scully is the ultimate badass, and if there was a show where she and Xena teamed up to solve crimes or fight the Greek gods or whatever, it would be the best show ever made. She basically keeps Mulder from running off the leash, and while she remains skeptical (except in cases involving religion, in which case Mulder, of all people, becomes the skeptic) throughout, her sharp mind and level-headed pursuit of mundane explanations while Mulder is jumping on the nearest wild theory actually ends up uncovering more than the people who assigned her to the X-Files ever expected.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner

Skinner is Mulder and Scully's grouchy, bespectacled superior, who generally takes no bullshit from either of them or from anyone else. He's entertainingly gruff and abrasive and plays the straight man to a lot of jokes over the series. He's also probably Mulder and Scully's greatest ally, even though the show tries to throw a shady light on him at first.

The Smoking Man

My favorite character in the series, the Smoking Man was the closest it really had to a single main villain, so it's curious to note that he's not actually in charge of the conspiracy, even though he's the face we put to it - he's more like middle management. While his superiors are working with the aliens to save their own skin, the Smoking Man seems to be involved simply because he hates people and believes they're incapable of survival without someone to keep them in line, yet he keeps having to kill the few people he respects, including JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr., for the danger they pose to the conspiracy. He shapes history and nations like an evil version of Forrest Gump, and at one point even delivers a misanthropic variant on the "box of chocolates" speech. Given that I found him the most relatable character on the show, I'm probably some sort of terrible person.

The Lone Gunmen

A trio of lovable conspiracy theorists that Mulder hangs out with and gets information from sometimes. They're weirder than him, although they say Mulder's weirder than them. They're the show's comic relief, and they had a very short-lived spinoff that had its own bit of conspiracy surrounding it because its pilot episode, which aired before 9/11, was about a CIA conspiracy to hijack a couple of 747s and fly them into the World Trade Center so they could blame Middle Eastern terrorists and justify an increase in defense spending. Yeah.

It's impossible to overstate the impact The X-Files had on television as a creative medium, or how much it is a 1990s period piece. Along with Seinfeld and Friends, it was one of the defining shows of the decade, and perhaps not coincidentally, its post-90s seasons just plain sucked - as if that decade were a Petri dish outside which the show could not sustain itself, withering and dying with the series finale "The Truth," which might still be the worst two hours of television that I've ever watched, resolving nothing, and survived only by an underwhelming stand-alone movie in 2008 that was basically an extended monster-of-the-week episode. Its first six seasons, however, are without a doubt some of the best TV ever made, and the series is one of the few shows I will "binge-watch."

From the beginning, it's steeped in the politics and culture of the 90s. The internet is a new thing, only occasionally important as a plot point, and even then, we see AOL chat rooms and databases, not a hint of social media just yet. The agents' cell phones are bulky, with big green digital readouts. Beneath the unmistakable aesthetic runs a current of paranoia also particular to the 90s. With the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton presidency in effect, there remains a dark thread of post-Vietnam, post-Cold War unease, the same wellspring from which the Metal Gear Solid video game series draws the best of its lore. The show makes you nostalgic for the days before the anti-vaxxer movement and Benghazi and the birthers, when all the conspiracies were about aliens, mind control and human experimentation. When the crap people thought the government was up to  was really out there, not just pants-on-head stupid. It's a kind of snapshot of a 10-year-period that saw an immense amount of cultural and technological change.

The series clearly has its roots in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a series that may have simply come along before its time, and The X-Files' early seasons tend to follow the same sort of formula, with the monsters of the week being slight variations on standard-issue horror creatures: a ghost, a werewolf, a rogue AI, even the Jersey Devil. As it went on and acquired its own identity, its monsters got stranger, and the series often dipped into absurdism and parody with episodes such as "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'," which deals with a Rashomon-style investigation into an alien abduction framed as a series of interviews with a Truman Capote stand-in played by Charles Nelson Reilly. It's widely considered one of the best episodes of the show, and its writer, Darin Morgan, is back for the new season to write episode 3, "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster." Season 5 had a crossover episode with Homicide: Life on the Street with a guest appearance by Richard Belzer as John Munch, and season 6 saw a crossover with Cops, another distinct relic of the 90s. Other monsters got weirder as well - a scientist with a shadow made of dark matter, a guy who regenerates by eating cancer, a trash golem that patrols a gated community and kills residents whose lawn decorations aren't up to code. Sometimes, the threat isn't supernatural at all - it might just be a crocodile or a serial killer or simply mass hysteria.

The X-Files is also where an absolutely ridiculous number of actors got their start. It launched the careers of both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. More future celebrities than I can count show up all through the series - Seth Green, Jack Black, Giovanni Ribisi and Bryan Cranston, to name a few, and in fact Cranston owes his star-making role as Walter White on to his appearance on The X-Files, as the episode was written by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Dozens of TV shows owe their existence - or at least their popularity - to The X-Files. We certainly wouldn't have Supernatural or Fringe or Grimm, and even non-paranormal conspiracy shows like 24 and The Blacklist owe an immense debt to Carter's series. It came along at the right time, took root in a particular era of American culture, and it changed television. Even the term "shipping" had its origins on X-Files message boards in the 90s.

Which is why I can't help but worry a little about the new episodes beginning Sunday. People who watch Seinfeld these days, too young to have watched it during its original run, don't see what's so funny about it precisely because everything it did has been aped by nearly every post-Seinfeld sitcom to the extent that the original seems old hat. Seinfeld built the modern sitcom. The X-Files built the modern conspiracy show and the modern monster-of-the-week paranormal investigation series, so what does it have to offer us now? At the very least, I think it has an opportunity to update its conspiracies to the post-9/11 era, the age of the Patriot Act and drones and constant surveillance and cyber-warfare. If it does that, it could still end up being really interesting and setting itself apart from other series that followed in its footsteps. We'll find out tomorrow night - which seems so very distant. If you're looking for a few episodes to watch before the premiere, here's my personal top five.

1. Jose Chung's "From Outer Space" (S3E20): A near-perfect piece of television. It's experimental, funny, poignant and deeper than its comedic bent leads one to believe. It's ultimately a story about our desire to connect with other people, despite the fact that we are all, in our own way, isolated by our perceptions. It's also got a pair of Men in Black played by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek.

2. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (S2E04): Also written by Darin Morgan. Peter Boyle plays a world-weary psychic who helps Mulder and Scully find a serial killer. He can't tell the future - all he can see is the way a person's going to die. Including himself. Again, one of the funniest, saddest episodes of the series.

3. Squeeze (S1E03): The third episode of the series, and the first really good one. This episode scared the living hell out of me when I first watched it during its initial broadcast. It still scares the hell out of me.

4. The Host (S2E02): A great monster of the week episode, with Mulder and Scully hunting down a fluke man created by radioactive mutation. Also, the fluke man was played by Darin Morgan, though he didn't write the episode. I think he might just be involved in all of the best things this show has ever done.

5. Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip (S2E25/S3E01/02): The season 2 finale and first two episodes of season 3. This three-part story is where the conspiracy arc really hit its stride, and it was never this strong again. Mulder and Scully clash with the Smoking Man over a buried train car that may or may not be full of alien corpses, and for the first time, the agents suffer dire consequences for their actions.

Remember, the truth is out there. And trust no one.

Available On: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

There Are No Happy Endings Because Nothing Ends

The Last Unicorn (1982)

It might seem a bit out of this blog's scope, but I remember my mom asking me recently (ish) if I knew of any good fantasy or fairy-tale movies for young kids, around 5-10 years old or so. I tried to come up with some titles, and I realized that there really aren't any these days, at least not many. Almost everything I came up with was from the 80s or earlier. Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, My Neighbor Totoro, The Flight of Dragons, etc. Stuff I used to watch in school. Other than a couple of international efforts (such as Thom Moore's The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, which I plan on covering sometime soon), live-action and animated movies for young audiences seem to have fallen by the wayside in favor of CG movies like Shark Tale, Ice Age and Kung Fu Panda.

The Last Unicorn is about as fairy-tale as it gets. It is one, and it's an examination of them, as the characters know they're in a fairy tale and defy many of the cliches one expects of them. A unicorn overhears a couple of hunters talking as they walk through her woods, and ventures out to see if she is in fact the last of her kind. Stories say that King Haggard has captured or killed all the others, having driven them into the sea using the Red Bull (yeah, there's really no way to hear some of this dialogue now without snickering), a fiery monster he keeps under his castle. She ends up captured while she sleeps by Mommy Fortuna, an old illusionist who has to enchant the unicorn with a false horn so people can see her as anything but a white mare. Most of her "Midnight Carnival" attractions are just sickly or wounded old animals enchanted to appear as mythical creatures. The only other truly immortal creature in the whole menagerie is the harpy Celeano. Mommy Fortuna knows she'll escape and kill her sooner or later, but that's what she wants - the harpy's memory of being held prisoner by her is Fortuna's own form of immortality.

Last of the Red Hot Swamis.

After the inevitable occurs and Fortunate and her henchman Ruhk are torn apart by Celeano, Schmendrick, Fortuna's pet magician, whose control over magic is wildly unpredictable, and the unicorn head off together to find Haggard's castle. In the movie's most mind-bogglingly weird sequence - and there are a lot of those - they run into a band of Robin Hood-esque thieves (who believe Robin Hood himself is a myth), their leader Captain Cully tells Schmendrick to sit down with them and have a taco, and then Schmendrick gets tied to a tree with giant boobs. It's seriously bizarre from start to finish.

Anyway, once that's done, they continue onward in the company of Molly Grue, one of Cully's band, and at last come to Haggard's kingdom and its desolate, crooked castle by the sea, which is apparently populated only by Haggard and his son Lir, a cat with a pegleg and an eyepatch, and a talking skeleton. Haggard and Lir even man the gates as their own guardsmen. The landscape, the castle and its cell-like tomb of a throne room are a clear reflection of Haggard himself, who is both frightening and pitiable - he's driven the unicorns into the sea, keeping them prisoner not out of greed or a lust for power, but because he's depressed. Looking at them is the only thing that makes him happy anymore. In order to hide the unicorn from Haggard and the Bull, Schmendrick changes her form - but she winds up a human girl, a mortal, now able to feel all the emotions of a mortal girl.

"You are losing my interest, and that is very dangerous."

I was pretty happy when I found that Netflix had The Last Unicorn available for streaming. I wore out my VHS tape when I was a kid. Even now, the beauty of this movie can bring a tear to my eye. One of the great Rankin-Bass cult classics, it's got a fantastic voice cast - Mia Farrow as the unicorn, Alan Arkin as Schmendrick, Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir, the late, sorely missed Christopher Lee as King Haggard, and a dozen others at least, plus some great songs by America and a screenplay by Peter S. Beagle, who wrote the original book. It's hard to say what still resonates with me today. The anachronisms, the dialogue, the memorably complex characters - it's one of those movies that I can watch now and still feel some small fraction of the wonder I felt when I was much younger and much happier myself. There was a live-action version in the works for a while that was going to reunite the original voice cast, but that got held up somewhere along the way, and with Lee's death, it doesn't seem like anything's going to come of it.

It gets pretty dark sometimes - Mommy Fortuna's death is hardly something you'd put in a family film these days, and the Red Bull is the stuff of goddamn nightmares through and through. Movies have come to underestimate kids since then, I think. Books, not so much, but the movie industry seems to believe that kids are downright fragile - not to mention too dull-witted to laugh at anything more sophisticated than fart jokes. The danger and the characters alike are all sanitized; Greedo shoots first, E.T. switches out its guns for walkie-talkies and so on. And you definitely wouldn't see nipples in anything G-rated now. But I think a good kids' movie should terrify kids once in a while.

Red Bull does NOT give you wings.

It's also a curious relic of animation history. It was animated by Topcraft, which was Rankin-Bass' non-stop-motion Japanese studio at the time, and most of its staff left with Hayao Miyazaki only a couple of years later, in 1984, to found Studio Ghibli. Topcraft actually did the animation for Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind before that, even though that's almost always considered a Ghibli movie these days. Another noteworthy name to come out of The Last Unicorn's animation crew is Hideaki Anno, who would go on to found Studio Gainax and, in the grip of his own Haggard-like depression, create one of the most well-known anime series ever: Neon Genesis Evangelion. Maybe his involvement with The Last Unicorn explains the boob tree and the tacos, I don't know.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

A Christmas Story and Bad Santa are probably my favorite Christmas movies...but they don't exactly fit in with this blog, so let's go with the only holiday movie you can watch twice a year! It's weird to think The Nightmare Before Christmas came out over 20 years ago - makes me feel kind of old. While it's basically Tim Burton's brainchild, based on a storybook he wrote and illustrated, the movie was actually written by Caroline Thompson and directed by Henry Selick (who directed, let's say "less good" Monkeybone and designed the weird fish for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), as Burton was busy directing Batman Returns. Originally released under Disney's Touchstone label for being potentially too frightening for younger kids, it is, possibly, the company's biggest cult classic. Hot Topic was basically a Nightmare Before Christmas store for a while there.

So gangly Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is depressed and craving a change of pace from planning Halloween all year, every year. While walking in the woods, Jack accidentally falls into the neighboring Christmas Town, where he's immediately captivated by the holiday cheer and strange he decides he's going to take over, and sets off a disastrous chain of miscalculations and misunderstandings. Jack is the only resident of Halloween Town who's seen Christmas Town firsthand, but he becomes the blind leading the blind, as he doesn't actually understand the place any better than the various ghouls, monsters and vampires he's enlisted to help him realize his dream.

The only Halloween Town local who's totally honest with Jack about his misguided attempts to usurp Christmas is Sally, the rag doll daughter of mad scientist Dr. Finklestein. Sally harbors a secret crush on Jack and only wants him to be happy, but she's had a vision of Jack's Christmas ending in tragedy. It's mostly because Jack and everyone around him see everything through a Halloween-tinted lens, and while they're not at all malicious, they're the wrong people for the job. They want everyone to be happy, but they just sort of assume that carnivorous holly wreaths, giant snakes and living toys are what makes everyone happy, and Jack is too caught up in his excitement and enthusiasm to realize how misguided he is.

Since there has to be a villain, Jack also makes the rather unwise decision to kidnap Santa Claus, who ends up turned over to Oogie Boogie, a New Orleans jazz-singing, gambling, glow-in-the-dark burlap sack of bugs and spiders, and the only resident of Halloween Town everyone seems to recognize as purely malevolent. While he's pretty awesome to look at, he's strangely irrelevant to the plot, only becoming involved when a rescue attempt by Sally results in both her and Santa being trapped in sort of a James Bond trap for Oogie's amusement.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a beautifully designed movie, with a look and feel they've since tried to recapture - and not quite succeeded - with James and the Giant Peach and The Corpse Bride. I've had a soft spot for stop-motion animation ever since I saw Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts, and this is some of the most intricate you'll ever see. (We don't see much of it at all anymore, now.) The sets are gorgeous, from Oogie Boogie's Day of the Dead / Wild West-themed fluorescent casino to the wider shots of Halloween Town, which, not coincidentally, since Tim Burton is our primary source of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari homages, pretty closely resembles Holstenwall. Still, if this movie has anyone's creative stamp on it, it's Danny Elfman. He composed the score, he wrote the songs and he provides Jack's singing voice - it's as much his movie as Burton's, perhaps more so.

The message of the film is harder to unpack. Jack is a complicated character, and you could come away from the movie with a sense that it was trying to convey a number of things. That the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? That you should learn to recognize your own strengths and take pride in them, and that being the best at one thing doesn't mean you'll do well at others? If you're feeling less charitable, you could say that it's a movie that advocates learning your place, because you can't be anything except what you are. I can at least get behind two of its messages. One is that a change of scenery can be exactly what a person needs when suffering from depression and burnout. The other is that even if you try and fail, the experience can nonetheless give you a valuable new perspective and inspire you.

Available On: Netflix.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Mephistopheles" Is Such A Mouthful In Manhattan.

Angel Heart (1987)

Angel Heart is a horror noir classic directed by Alan Parker, who would revisit the seedy South in 1989's Mississippi Burning, after which he's probably best known for his film adaptation of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. Harold Angel, played by a young Mickey Rourke, is the quintessential 1950s New York City private eye - trenchcoat, stubble, glass of whiskey always within reach. He's also got an irrational fear of chickens. Contracted by the law firm of Winesap and Macintosh through their client, Louis Cyphre (a wonderfully deadpan Robert DeNiro), Angel is sent on a hunt for a wartime crooner named Johnny Favourite, who was apparently injured during the war and is likely wandering around shell-shocked with no money, no direction and possibly no memory. And if you don't know who Cyphre is supposed to be, just...I don't think there's anyone who can't figure this out, seriously.

I got a thing about chickens.

So Angel tracks Favourite through his known acquaintances, who tend to end up dead soon after he talks to them. First on the list is a morphine-addicted doctor who signed off on Favourite's hospital paperwork, who ends up shot through the eye while Angel is out picking up smokes and a sandwich. The trail then leads to New Orleans' French Quarter and the dark bayous of Louisiana, where Angel becomes embroiled in voodoo, devil worship and a web of lies involving Favourite, a local fortuneteller and Favourite's daughter Epiphany.

The plot here is pretty obvious - if not from the start, you should at least have figured it all out within the first half hour or so. Everyone's got a meaningful name, Cyphre barely even bothers covering up his true identity and seems to find it genuinely amusing that Angel doesn't figure it out until the end, and Parker doesn't really seem to think that you're going to be surprised when it all clicks. The real reason to watch this movie is because of its atmosphere. It's a superbly dark and foreboding piece of Deep South noir with some great New Orleans jazz music and possibly one of the best soundtracks ever, by Trevor Jones (who also did amazing work on Labyrinth and Dark City). You know where Angel is headed, you know the realization that's in store for him, but it's a compelling process just watching him get there. I don't ordinarily like Satanic movies - religious horror comes with a lot of inherent moral and cosmic baggage, and being as far from religious as you can get, I never quite buy into it or suspend my disbelief enough to actually be scared by the idea of the Devil. This is one of the few that I do like.

Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit
to the wise, Johnny....

Angel Heart has a couple of other interesting bits of trivia surrounding it. Epiphany Proudfoot is played by Lisa Bonet, probably most often remembered as Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show and A Different World. Bonet took the part in Angel Heart to move away from her contractually "pure" image, and for better or worse, it succeeded. There's a very explicit sex scene between Epiphany and Angel that had footage cut so the film could retain its R rating, and Bill Cosby had her fired from The Cosby Show as a result - which seems all the more ironic in hindsight, given what's come to light about Cosby himself in subsequent years. Angel Heart was also the primary inspiration for the 1993 adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, much as Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder inspired Silent Hill.

Available On: Netflix.