Monday, December 21, 2009


I've been meaning to review a lot of movies by director Danny Boyle on this blog. He's been making movies since 1994, and pretty much all of them have been good. The exception is his film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which tried to hard to be flashy. He's most well known for his films Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. If you've seen those movies, you'd know they're pretty adult fare, which is why many of his fans were surprised in 2004 when he made the family friendly Christmas movie, Millions.

I suppose technically speaking, this isn't so much a Christmas movie as it is a movie set at Christmastime. The distributors clearly thought so, since in America this movie was released in the middle of the summer, but the story just feels a bit more relevant in the holiday season.

Millions is set in the UK in the month leading up to it's changeover from the pound to the euro as its currency. Two kids, Damian and Anthony come across a duffle bag full hundreds of thousands of pounds in their backyard, which they realize they have to do something about soon as it will be worthless when the UK switches to the euro. Anthony, the older brother, wants to spend it and invest it and Damian, the younger brother, wants to give it to the poor.

I should also mention that Damian is frequently visited by visions of saints who explain their personal histories to him.

Millions doesn't resort to the obvious cliche where everybody realizes it's better to give to others than to spend on yourself. It actually becomes a rather complex morality tale, but you should have guessed that it was going to be complex when I told you that it was a family movie that involved changing foreign monetary systems as it's central premise.

Both brothers agree to keep the money secret, though Anthony doesn't waste any time buying fun gadgets and bribing his friends. On the other hand Damian has a bit of difficulty giving away his share, since a grade school kid can't really go about handing out money without raising suspicion. It's not long before things get out of hand for him and everybody feels entitled to some portion of the wealth.

If you've seen any of Danny Boyle's other movies, you'll definitely recognize his directorial style in this one. There's plenty of slick editing and music choices all along the way. One of the most energetic scenes is when the boys learn where the money actually came from, which is set to Muse's song "Hysteria."

The movie is family friendly, but it's complexity may mean that parents watching it with their kids will find they have a lot of questions to answer afterward, probably the largest one being whether or not you'd keep the money for yourself or give it away.

Another heads up: this movie will probably put you in a philanthropic mood afterward. The movie never outright preaches that giving is good. Instead it makes an argument about what one really can do by using money wisely. Keep it to yourself and it's useless. Give it away thoughtlessly and people start expecting it. Somewhere in between, it argues, you can afford to help somebody out while enjoying yourself.

In keeping with that theme, the DVD contained an insert suggested making a donation to Heifer International if you felt inspired by the movie to do some giving. Even if the movie doesn't seem like your cup of tea, at least look into the charity.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture

From the Creator of Where the Wild Things Are

The holidays are a strange time for movies. For one thing, Christmas movies are only really watchable around the month of December. (Something just feels weird about watching them any other time of the year, but I just can't put my finger on it.) This means that movies themed around Christmas really only have one good month to find their audience, and have to make such an impression in the public's mind as to be remembered again a year later when it's time for them to be released on home video.

Of course, many succeed in this task. It almost seems like a sacrilege not to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation annually, and Love Actually is fast becoming a modern classic in its own right. Yet we're still treated to numerous movies that bastardize classics (Ron Howard's version of The Grinch) or at least make them feel eerie and alien (The Polar Express) or otherwise try to knockoff Christmas Vacation. (Deck the Halls, Christmas With the Cranks, etc.)

So this month, I'm going to try and shed light on as many under appreciated Christmas movies as I can, starting with the 1986 film, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.

What makes this particular version stand out is that the production, originally created for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, was designed by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. Like many projects helmed by artists with distinctive touches, every scene bears his signature style, with backgrounds and costumes that look like they were lifted right out of his picture books. Not surprisingly, he later illustrated a version of the E. T. A. Hoffman story based on the artwork he created for this production.

This version also stands out because the filmmakers truly shot this as a movie, instead of just filming a live performance of the production. In adapting the ballet for screen they didn't limit themselves showing things that could be done on stage. Instead they took advantage of the camera's ability to show close subtle interactions between characters, as well as a few creative scene transitions.

That being said, it still retains the feel of a production meant for the stage. The effects are low budget, but executed in a manner reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula or a Wes Anderson movie. In other words, it's very theatrical. For example, the second act opens with a shot of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince sailing along the ocean. The set is perfectly framed on all sides by a featuring Sendak's designs, while the boat and waves are all done with two dimensional cut outs. Instead of looking like a cheap effect, the result is an a moving illustration.

For anybody who is seriously familiar with the Nutcracker ballet, I should mention this version does some unique liberties with the art direction and story. Maybe not to the extent of the sexualized, Dickensian vision in Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! but something unique nonetheless. Instead of the second half being set in a candy land like most versions, it's set in some exotic Turkish land, and instead of it being ruled by the Sugarplum Fairy, it's ruled by a strange version of Herr Drosselmeyer.

If you're not at all familiar with the Nutcracker ballet, this version is easily one of the better filmed versions you will come across, so it's the best place to start.

Now for a bit of bad news. This version isn't currently available on DVD. However, it is available for purchase or rental on iTunes, and can also be seen on Hulu.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stephen King's The Mist

Yeah, I was surprised by this one too...

When I first saw the ads for this one, I just rolled my eyes. Maybe it was just the fact that for every well made Stephen King adaptation there is, there are a slew more memorably bad ones. More likely it's because this movie was released about a year after the The Fog, a horrendous remake of the John Carpenter movie with a similar premise. I probably would have forgotten about it entirely had it not been for a good amount of internet buzz legitimately praising as being a modern classic. When it came out on video, I kicked myself for not getting in on the ground floor of this one.

I tried to spread the gospel of this movie before starting this blog, but every time I tried explaining it to people, they kept assuming I was talking about the remake of The Fog. Once I cleared it up with them that it wasn't The Fog, they then assumed it was a shitty knock off of The Fog. So here I am breaking down reasons why you should see this movie.

1. It's not The Fog.
Seriously. It has nothing to do with it.

2. It's written and directed by Frank Darabont.
Don't recognize that name? He's the guy who gave us The Shawshank Redemption (which, interestingly enough, is another movie based on a Stephen King story that was initially overlooked) and The Green Mile. If you've seen either of those, this should be pretty self explanatory.

3. It's a damn good thriller.
Okay, here's where I'm going to devote the bulk of my efforts. This movie is essentially a B-movie made better than anybody should have ever made one. After a devastating storm hits a small New England town, (for any Stephen King fans out there, yes it's Castle Rock,) a mysterious mist rolls down from the mountains. The town residents find themselves trapped in the local grocery store when a man runs inside, covered in blood, claiming something in the mist is killing people. The "something" turns out to be a horde of alien creatures.

While the premise is strictly B-movie, the characters are developed up to A-movie standards. The heros, played by Thomas Jane and Laurie Holden, aren't a pair of hard-asses with quotable one-liners. Instead they're believeable as ordinary Joes who find themselves the voice of reason in and increasingly maddening situation.

There's the skeptic, a New York City lawyer vacationing in town. While B-movie skeptics tend to have the strange ability to doubt that the monster/demon/phantom attacking people is real, even when the evidence is staring him/her right in the face, in The Mist, we can kind of see the skeptic's point... for a while at least.

But the real surprise is how this movie uses the token religious nut, Mrs. Carmody, played by Marcia Gay Harden. She starts out as a simple cliche. She's the one who starts shouting bible verses in the background when it's apparent that monsters are among them. Yet as the movie progresses, she steps out of the background and emerges as the main villain, one worse than the monsters outside.

She begins to convince the people trapped within the store that the monsters are a punishment from God, whipping them into a frenzy that anybody who doesn't side with her must be sacrificed. This of course leaves the heroes in a catch 22 situation, where they can either be killed by the monsters outside, or killed by the people in the store.

As a horror movie, The Mist isn't really scary, but as a thriller, it's a genuine nail biter. Be warned that it's also frustrating to watch. You'll probably find yourself wanting to kill Mrs. Carmody halfway through the movie, yet find yourself feeling as helpless as the other characters in doing something about it. As for the monsters, while they aren't the focus of the film, when show up onscreen they're convincingly frightening, a rarity for sci-fi movies.

By the way, should you end up watching this and decide you want to own it, there's a two disc collectors edition available with a black and white version of the film included.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Dear Guy Ritchie,

Welcome back.


An Avid Film Buff

When Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels first came out, director Guy Ritchie was hailed as the next big filmmaker. His follow up, Snatch, proved he was deserving of that acclaim. He knew how put together a film so that everything; the acting, the editing, the music and the dialogue, all had the same aggressively cheeky tone to it. It's no wonder that of all the short films made for BMW's 2001 web series, The Hire, Guy Ritchie's entry is probably the only one still being talked about. I've included it in its entirety below.

Then, he got serious with Madonna, and together they released the romantic comedy Swept Away, which I haven't seen, but I understand is considerably less awesome than the film above. Things got worse with his follow up film, Revolver, a Kabbalah allegory that drowns in so much symbolism and has so many twists and turns, I don't even know what plane of existence it's supposed to be set in.

But then he made RocknRolla, and everything was alright. He went back to the formula that made him big in the first place: Crime + comedy + twisting plots + big ensemble cast. (Revolver lacked the comedy portion.)

Still, despite the critics recognizing that the Guy Ritchie we used to know and love was back, and a fair amount of TV spots being run for it, RocknRolla was given a limited release, making it more of an art house movie. The film went in and out of theaters without a lot of people noticing.

Like Lock, Stock... and Snatch, RocknRolla has a lot of overlapping stories about criminals screwing each other over. There's Lenny Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) a real estate baron who manipulates the system so he's in control of any deal that goes down in London, his son Johnny Quid, a junkie rocker, and the Wild Bunch (lead by Gerard Butler) a group of criminals for hire.

A Russian developer does a deal with Cole, and as a sign of good faith he lends Cole his lucky painting, which is promptly stolen by Johnny Quid. While Cole is having his men look for his son, the Wild Bunch are stealing money from the Russian to pay off money they owe Cole, using tips from the Russian's accountant (played by Thandie Newton). Artful swearing and occasional gun battles ensue.

For fans of Guy Ritchie's other movies, in terms of tone this one falls somewhere between Lock, Stock... and Snatch. It's lighter in tone than Lock Stock... but compared to Snatch it feels a bit scaled back. Aside from Jeremy Piven's and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, this one mainly avoids American actors. The low level criminals have dumb moments but they don't match the total stupidity of Vinny, Tyrone and Sol, (the trio of thugs from Snatch tasked with kidnapping Franky Four Fingers.) It's definitely a funny movie, but there are notably fewer laugh out loud moments, possibly due to the subplot involving Johnny Quid being a drug addict.

All of the performances in this movie are good, but special attention should be called to Toby Kebbel who plays Johnny Quid, and Mark Strong, who plays Archy, Lenny Cole's right hand man.

Strong has been around the film industry for a while, but aside from his role as Septimus in the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, he hasn't had any previous major film roles yet. Here, Strong stands out like he's been a top billed actor for ages. He plays his role the way the way you'd expect somebody like Willem DaFoe or Michael Gambon to play it, commanding complete control over the scene. It's no surprise that for his next movie, Sherlock Holmes, he gets billed alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the trailers.

As for Kebbel, he's new to the game, but he's going to go far. Somehow, his portrayal of a junkie rockstar bounces back and forth between a tragic figure and a slapstick cartoon character. In the scenes he shares with Mark Strong, it's like watching two legendary actors at work.

If you missed this one when it came out, you should definitely bump it to the top of your viewing list, especially if you're into crime movies and definitely if you're among those people excited by the prospect of a sequel to Boondock Saints.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

For ages, Disney pretty much had a stranglehold on the animated family film market. No matter how good or bad something another studio put out was, it could never hope to get the level of public recognition as a Disney movie. Dreamworks finally broke through that barrier with its computer animated hit, Shrek, and has enjoyed success ever since... mostly. While its CGI efforts have have been rolling in money, Dreamworks' non-CGI cartoons have largely gone unseen by mass audiences. It's a shame because some of those movies represent the studio's best work, such as the Academy award winner for Best Animated Feature of 2005, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit.

Wallace, an absent minded British inventor, and Gromit, his considerably more level headed pet dog, were previously the stars of a trio of award winning short films. It seemed logical that they were deserving of their own feature length film. The movie features them as a pair of humane exterminators, helping their neighbors protect their crops from rabbit infestations. Wallace gets the idea to use mind control on the local rabbit population to stop them from eating crops, but the invention he designs for the task doesn't work right and instead creates a giant were-rabbit that terrorizes the village (in a completely harmless family friendly way.)

There's a steady stream of humor, but unlike a lot of Dreamworks' other animated films, it's not centered around pop culture references or songs that were tearing up the European dance scene five years ago. Instead the filmmakers opted for a more vaudevillian/Looney Tunes style of humor. So, expect a fair amount of food being thrown in faces, muskets being fired and one instance of cross-species cross-dressing. (Hey, it worked for Bugs Bunny).

The great thing about that is it gives the movie a timeless feel. You could show this to somebody 50 years in the past or the future and they'd enjoy it on the same level as somebody today.

Granted the characters are all British, but the filmmakers were fully aware that this movie's largest audience would be stateside, so the accents aren't too thick. Of course with British characters, one can expect British humour. In addition to the slapstick, there's a fair amount of subtle jokes in the way of visual gags and word play.

If I had to guess why this movie didn't end up getting lots of public recognition, (though clearly it got the critics' attention) I'd say it was probably due to its release date and the marketing behind it. For one thing, it came out in October. This makes sense, seeing as how the whole giant monster rabbit lends itself to the Halloween market, but that's also a traditional dumping ground for movies the studio didn't think were good enough for the summer or holiday movie season.

Second, the characters don't exactly lend themselves to the marketing blitz usually associated with animated movies. This isn't an "event" movie that easily lends itself to action figures, children's bedspread sets and the usual merchandising gimmicks. (I hear Disney actually had a lot of the same problems when it came to promoting Up and Ratatouille.) It's a pretty small scale story that spoofs more epic movies without trying to be epic in scope itself.

Personally I'd recommend this movie for lots of people, and not just people with kids. It's great for anybody really just looking for an hour and a half of good clean slapstick fun. I mean, I like my comedy to be edgy and over the top too, but it's nice to see a comedy on occasion that isn't mean spirited.

If you do like this movie, you should also check out the other Wallace and Gromit shorts, A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, all of which are available in a single collection on DVD.

Image Courtesy of Dreamworks SKG and

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Plot Summary and Target Audience Described in One Word Title

There's a good chance that if you're some level of movie geek, you did hear about this movie. Most likely it was in the context of the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein's attempts to re-edit the film to remove a subplot where a character was dying of cancer. You also probably didn't see it because it rolled through theaters and onto DVD with barely a mention on even Adult Swim.

So to answer your questions in order, yes the cancer subplot is there and yes, if you liked Star Wars you'll probably enjoy this movie... but it does have it's faults.

Now for those of you who never heard of Fanboys, the story follows a group of friends from Ohio who made plans to infiltrate the Skywalker Ranch (George Lucas's home) when they were kids. By the time they've grown up, its 1998 and, one of the group, Eric, is primed to take over his family's used car business. The rest of his friends still act like they're in grade school. When another of the group, Linus, finds out he has cancer, they decide to go through with their childhood plan. In particular, they've decided they will steal a rough cut of Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace, so that Linus can see it before he dies.

Naturally, what follows is a madcap cross country road trip filled with nerd references and an occasional sexual encounter. They rumble with Trekkies at the town where Captain Kirk was born (Shatner's Kirk, not Chris Pine.) One of them gets beat up by Harry Knowles from Ain't It Cool News. An of course, and endless stream of Star Wars gags ranging from the overt to the subtle.

While there are alot of good gags, there are a few occasions where something was a bit off about the execution. The joke would be funny, but had the potential to be way funnier. For example, in the aforementioned Star Trek rumble, the filmmakers couldn't get the rights to use the actual Star Trek uniform designs, so instead they use "parody" uniforms. Its a minor distraction in that it took me a while to actually get that they were supposed to be Star Trek uniforms, which sort of took me out of the moment. However, the scene is saved by a cameo appearance by Seth Rogen as a Trekkie who does not take kindly to somebody ripping on Captain Kirk.

On top of that the subplots could have used a bit more fleshing out. Once they hit the road the film pretty much forgets that the characters are all supposed to be running away from something back home. Eric's story about taking over the family business would have been nice to see fleshed out, but you can't fault a movie too much for sticking to it's main premise.

In spite of all that, it's an alright movie It's not of the calibre of film that it would have been worth seeing in theaters, but it's certainly worth checking out as a rental. Clearly the people who made it have a deep love of all things Star Wars, but you'll probably leave it wondering why it wasn't directed by Kevin Smith. Sadly, he only makes a cameo appearance, but then again so does anybody else famous who's tied to Star Wars. My favorite might be Billy Dee Williams as Judge Reinhold. (It makes sense, trust me.)

The film's strengths come when it plays on the sense of nostalgia for the excitement alot of us felt at the prospect of a new trilogy of Star Wars movies coming out. If you're like me, you probably thought the original trilogy was the most amazing contribution to cinema ever, so the idea of there being more to the story was simply mind blowing. The characters capture that perfectly. It also brings back memories of what it was like being a nerd in the late 90's. You know, back when the internet was still new, and if you got the inside scoop on something it meant something. Not like today where if something gets leaked online, the whole world is going to know about it in half a day.

At the very least, it should bring back memories of your first time seeing Episode I. For me, I'd managed to rally friends together for the Special Edition releases of the original trilogy, and Episodes II and III, yet for some reason I couldn't get a damn one of my friends to go with me on opening day of Phantom Menace. Their reason? They wanted to wait until the crowd died down.

You guys kind of suck, you know that?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Layer Cake

The Movie that Turned Daniel Craig into James Bond

So, you've seen The Departed inside and out, you know every line from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and you're trying to find a crime movie a little less over-referenced than Scarface. (Over-referenced. Overrated. Same thing.) Fortunately, if there's one thing that British filmmakers are good at, it's putting together a crime movie that doesn't feel like it's just a rehash of everything that came before.

(On a side note, I just want to mention that I opted for the UK version of the trailer because it was far more creatively made than the US version, revealed less of the plot and just to point out what they can get away with in advertising over there.)

Layer Cake is just that sort breath of fresh air the crime genre can use. It's got all the stuff I wish American filmmakers would put in gangster movies more often. There's the snappy one liners, the characters constantly trying to out do each other, and the fact that anybody who's naive enough to think he's a big shot usually gets cut down... brutally.

The film stars Daniel Craig as a drug dealer named... um... Okay, so apparently I'm not smart enough to figure that out. Anyway, he rigidly abides by a set of rules that ensures that he stays out of trouble with the law. He keeps a low profile, doesn't try to make a name for himself, and has every intention of getting out of the job early.

His plan seems to be working well, until his boss calls him up and says he wants Daniel Craig to find one of his associate's daughter who's gone missing. On top of this, a group of idiot wannabes heisted a large supply of ecstasy pills from an Eastern European war criminal, claiming to be Daniel Craig's associates, so he's got to sort things out to keep his good name alive.

The film is directed by Matthew Vaughn, who previously produced Guy Ritchie's hits Lock, Stock... and Snatch, and who would also go on to write and direct Stardust (another movie I expect to cover later). Unlike Ritchie's films, which are essentially comedies where everybody has a gun, Layer Cake is a bit more serious in tone.

That's not to say this is some sort of gravely serious, gritty crime drama. There's plenty of humor, it just tends to be a bit quirkier. For example, one scene has Daniel Craig's character engaging in a romantic tryst with a woman played by Sienna Miller. She gets him riled up then makes him wait while she changes into something a bit more enticing. Just before she's ready to make her grand entrance, he is quietly abducted by thugs.

Then of course there's what one of my friends described as the best directed scene involving a man getting beaten senseless, scored to Duran Duran's "Ordinary World." You really have to see that for yourself.

The film does suffer a few drawbacks. Everybody speaks with pretty heavy British accents, making the dialogue a bit hard to follow on occasion. This wouldn't be so problematic if everybody in the movie weren't constantly trying to outwit each other. There are a few instances where it was clear that somebody just pulled an impressive con over somebody else, but I couldn't tell exactly what had just happened. The accents and plot twists only result in mild confusion, and with the overall cleverness of the movie, you're not likely to care too much.

It's also worth noting that this is pretty much the movie that secured Daniel Craig's role as the new James Bond, and it's easy to see why. He portrays his character in this movie with the sort of aggressive coldness he would later use to save the Bond franchise from the travesty that was Die Another Day, though in Layer Cake, he does considerably less ass kicking. In fact, the first time he picks up a gun, he kind of makes a fool of himself.

If you do decide to check it out (which you should), I should also mention that this movie seems to be one of those ones that Best Buy periodically puts on sale for $5 or less, meaning that it's just as cheap to own it as it is to rent it. In that case, buy it right away. Odds are, this movie is going to find its way into the rotation of movies you watch over and over again anyway.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Southland Tales

Another Mind Blowing Sci-fi Movie From the Writer/Director of Donnie Darko

Southland Tales is director Richard Kelly's follow up to his cult hit Donnie Darko. Considering that Donnie Darko's popularity grew so huge that it's one of the few films I can think of that actually got a theatrically released director's cut, whatever Kelly released next seemed destined to be huge... at least in the nerd/art house film crowd. Yet Southland Tales is still a little known movie, a fact made even stranger considering the film's all star cast.

When I say "all star" I mean that in a pretty close to literal sense. Just about everybody with a speaking role is a well known actor, although most of them play characters unlike anything they've ever played before. No really. It's got Dwayne Johnson, Sean William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Christopher Lambert, John Laroquette, Jon Lovitz, Mandy Moore, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Smith, Justin Timberlake and the bald dude from The Princess Bride.

With this many stars, it's no surprise that Janeane Gerafalo's role ended up getting cut down to a half second cameo.

So why haven't you probably heard of this movie? Truth be told, it didn't fare too well with critics in early screenings. They were mostly baffled by the film's intricately twisting storylines, and onslaught of geek references. Presumably, based on the bad early press, it was given a very small theatrical release, even by art house film standards. But this really isn't a movie for critics at all. This is a movie for fanboys looking for an out and out crazy piece of hard sci-fi.

Now you're going to ask me what it's about right? That's where it gets a bit tricky. The short version is that it's about the way the world ends. Not with a whisper, but with a bang.

The long version, is that it's a Bush-era fable about a world where government paranoia has gone rampant. Terrorists detonate a pair of nuclear bombs over Texas, prompting the nation throw control of Congress over to the Republicans. In turn, they put the nation on complete lockdown, with visas required for interstate travel and heavily armed soldiers in the streets.

Against this backdrop are interweaving stories about the citizens of L.A. in this new world. There's Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) an action star with political connections who has amnesia and finds himself in the company of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a porn star trying to go legit. There's Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott), a cop who finds himself caught up with a group of Neo-Marxists trying to take down the government. We follow the government employees who believe that they're restoring order to the world, the Neo-Marxists who think they're doing the same thing, and everybody else who is caught up in between, whether deliberately or not.

However, it's not so much the plot that's the draw of this story as is the execution. If you've ever seen Donnie Darko, you should have some idea what to expect next. For starters, the one liners are fantastic. If you thought Samantha Darko asking "What's a fuck-ass?" at the dinner table was good, you ought to hear the stuff that comes out of Sarah Michelle Gellar's mouth.

Then there's the whole sci-fi aspect. Much like Donnie Darko, the characters find themselves subjected to things like parallel dimensions, time travel, destiny and religion. Yet there's never that moment where everybody figures out exactly what is going on. Suffice to say, things get really freakin' weird fast.

Thankfully, they never get weird in the David Lynch, I'm-never-going-to-figure-this-shit-out kind of way. You'll be able to follow the plot (mostly) on the first time through, but there's going to be a lot of stuff that is going to go over your head. This movie just politely asks that you sit back, enjoy the soundtrack, and let it blow your mind. It begs you to watch it again with the promise that you'll have a better understanding of what you just saw the next time around.

As you can guess, this is an extremely ambitious movie, a fact made more notable considering that the movie wasn't even envisioned as the entire story. You'll note that after an extensive prolog, the story starts out at chapter 4. That's because Richard Kelly conceived this story as a truly multi-media extravaganza, with parts of the story told in different formats. There was supposed to be a massive viral marketing campaign and a comic book mini-series leading up to the release. The comic, which tells the first three chapters of the story didn't get that wide a release and the online aspect was started but never really completed. For example, even two years after this movie's release, the website for the character Krysta Now, the porn star/aspiring businesswoman, still has a coming soon banner on most of its pages. In case you're wondering, it's not essential to read the comic before seeing the movie. The important parts of the comic are summarized at the start of the movie, but it gives the viewer a better understanding of the back story.

The soundtrack, as I mentioned before, is incredible. For one thing, Moby was such a fan of Donnie Darko that he agreed to score the film, which is something he rarely ever does. Then there's selections by the Pixies, Waylon Jennings, Blur and a nice little number sung by Sarah Michelle Gellar as Krysta Now called "Teen Horniness is Not a Crime." Of all of these, the showpiece is the scene where Justin Timberlake lip syncs to The Killers' "All These Things I've Done," during a hallucination filled with dancing nurses.

Like I said before, this is an ambitious movie, but while that's a phrase usually used to describe movies that aspire to be something great and fall extremely short, Southland Tales seems to be every bit the epic Richard Kelly hoped it would be when he started work on it. This is a movie that will probably never be part of the mainstream, but I suspect that over time it will find its audience and become a cult hit. That being said, I recommend renting it soon so that you can say you were one of the cool kids who saw it before everybody else.

Promo Art courtesy of Darko Entertainment

Little Nemo

So one thing I decided I’d do when I started this blog was to shed some light on movies that never really made it into the public consciousness, despite being thoughtfully crafted, and just plain enjoyable to watch. Today, I thought I’d cover the anime film Little Nemo, seeing as how I finally got to watch it over the weekend. If you want to see a trailer for it, click here.

Odds are that if you remember this film at all, it’s probably in the form of a half remembered advertisement you saw as a kid for one of those “non-Disney” cartoons we all shied away from. It never did get what one would call a major release, and even in the days of where old anime classics experienced a revival on DVD as anime became more popular in America, this film never got caught up in the hubbub.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Little Nemo began as a comic strip created by Winsor McCay in the early 20th century. The strip chronicled Nemo’s journeys through a fantastical realm known as Slumberland, and each strip usually ended with him waking up and falling out of bed. The strip was also notable for it’s brilliant colors and surrealistic imagery. Generally, they took up an entire page of the comic pages. (On a side note, supposedly one of the reasons Bill Waterson retired from writing Calvin & Hobbes was because he wanted to draw his comic in the style of Little Nemo, but newspapers wanted something smaller and with panels that could be more easily rearranged.)

The movie was produced by Japanese anime studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha, but was largely worked on by American talents such as Ray Bradbury, Chris Columbus (famous for Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter movies) and the Sherman Brothers, who previously worked on music for several Disney films. Despite being made in 1989, it didn’t make its way stateside until 1992. Strangely enough, the video game adaptation made its way stateside before that.

As for the plot of the movie, I’m going to be honest. It’s not exactly Disney. Even when Disney was in its pre-Little Mermaid slump, it was putting out stuff with more character development than this. The story is pretty simple. One night Nemo is visited in his bed by the personal entourage of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. The king requests that he comes to Slumberland to be his daughter’s playmate. He doesn’t explore Slumberland too long before a mischievous character named Flip accidentally gets Nemo to unleash an evil known as the Nightmare, and naturally Nemo’s the one who has to stop it.

I say it’s a simple story because there’s never really any motivation given for the characters actions. Morpheus’s invitation to Nemo is completely arbitrary (not to mention the level of responsibility he gets entrusted with) and there’s no reason given for why Flip creates the amount of havoc he does, other than it helps move the story along.

What the film lacks in story, it certainly makes up in style. The film manages to effortlessly toe the line of depicting a world that is strange and surreal, without confusing the viewer. The world in which the story is set frequently transforms into something completely different in a way that perfectly mimics the non sequitur nature of dreams. For example, the opening sequence has Nemo wake up in his bed, discovering he can fly it out the window. He flies around the city, but suddenly finds himself among unfamiliar ruins, hounded by a speeding train.

Even the non-surreal visuals are incredible. Slumberland, as depicted in the movie, is a world that resembles the most extravagant palaces of Europe if they were the size of entire cities. Then there’s the animation itself. Like many anime movies, everything is drawn with such fluid detail that even the way smoke is animated, it seems to have character.

Despite it’s simple story, the whole package is overall pretty enjoyable. I suspect that had I seen it as a kid, this movie would have been something I watched over and over. Although it’s clearly targeted for younger audiences, this movie is a good example of how to make a family film parents can enjoy that doesn’t involve slyly sneaking in “adult” references, or tries to hock some product to kids. Aside from a scene halfway through the movie where the Nightmare breaks into Slumberland, it’s as family friendly as one could ask for. Granted that scene in question is a bit freaky and I’m sure it would have given me bad dreams as a kid. In fact, I think they cut it out of the initial American release, but it’s not that bad.

Unfortunately, Little Nemo is still a bit hard to find, so unless you use Netflix,, or your local library has a good inter-library loan system, it’s going to be a hard one to track down. On the plus side, it’s pretty cheap to buy, as has it listed for about $8. Yes, that’s twice the cost of a rental, but if you’re an anime fan or a parent looking for a quality family film, it’s worth owning.

Hopefully in upcoming years this movie will gain some level of notoriety and be easier to find.