Category: 1995


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When Robert Rodriguez (The Faculty) burst onto the scene with the micro-budgeted El Mariachi in 1992, it was clear to the entire film loving world that despite that film’s lack of polish, Rodriguez was going to soon be a major player in stylistic film-making. Cue three years later with his debut studio feature, Desperado, and Rodriguez shot himself into alternative superstardom. I hadn’t seen Desperado in probably over ten years before I watched it for this blog, and I had completely forgotten that Desperado might be the greatest B-movie ever made.

Working within the realm of mythic folk heroes, neo-Westerns, and John Woo action crime thrillers, Desperado is such an astonishing second effort that one can only imagine what Rodriguez could have done on El Mariachi if he’d had more than $7,000 to make the film. Understanding that I’m in the vast minority here with regards to how highly I now hold this film, I can name few other action films that drip with so much wit, playfulness, and energy as Desperado. If Rodriguez had kept this type of quality up his entire career, he could have been as important to the industry as his good friend Quentin Tarantino.

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Desperado is a unique film in that it is both a sequel to the original El Mariachi as well as a sort of spiritual remake in that it’s the kind of movie Rodriguez wanted to make but didn’t have the money back in 1992 which is why elements of the plot feel somewhat familiar. Replacing the first film’s Carlos Gallardo, Antiono Banderas (Puss in Boots) plays the unnamed El Mariachi. Several years after witnessing the murder of the woman he loved and getting shot through the hand, El Mariachi is a whirlwind force of justice in the small border towns between the US and Mexico dispensing vigilante justice on the drug crews that were responsible for the murder of his love.

With the help of his partner Buscemi (Interview‘s Steve Buscemi), El Mariachi has attained a mythic status in the haunts of the Mexican drug dealers including a bar secretly run for the powerful cartel head Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida). Bucho was the real head of the cartel that killed El Mariachi’s lover, and El Mariachi believes that Bucho is the last man standing in the way of his quest for vengeance. But when El Mariachi meets the beautiful Carolina (Salma Hayek) as well as a young boy who wants to learn the guitar, he must decide what he will sacrifice to get his revenge.

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Quentin Tarantino shows up in this film (Desperado predates their partnership for From Dusk Til Dawn by only a year), and it’s clear that Tarantino’s early work was having on influence on Rodriguez’s writing (and would have an influence for years to come). In the film’s brilliant opening segment, Buscemi goes to the bad guy bar (with the great Cheech Marin in a small bit part) to put the fear of El Mariachi in these criminals (and to see if they recognize El Bucho’s name). It’s one long, extended story told by Buscemi (with visual accompaniment), but it adds to the mythic nature of the film as well as its own awareness of its pulpy roots.

What makes Desperado great though (even in a way that Tarantino’s later works like Django Unchained fail to achieve) is that it is entirely self-aware without winking at the audience. Desperado knows it’s an action movie where Antonio Banderas blows drug dealers across rooms while duel-wielding shotgun-pistols (not making that up) and owns a cod-piece machine gun. And it knows that it can’t take itself too seriously under that premise. But, Desperado manages to walk that balancing act of being self-aware and tongue-in-cheek without playing every moment for laugh (though I must admit that I was cackling with glee during some of the film’s more ridiculous moments).

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Antonio Banderas has become more of a caricature than a legitimate actor over the last ten years, but Desperado reminds me of why he had the potential to become such an exciting figure (alongside his great, smaller performance in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia). El Mariachi is larger than life. He’s essentially a comic book superhero thrown into the dusty streets of Mexico fighting knife-throwing psychopaths (a memorable and early role for Danny Trejo) and Mexican drug dealers. And Antonio Banderas has all the cocksure bravura and swagger (with just the right sensitivity) to nail the role.

The movie loses just a little bit of its special energy and insanity in the final act. A plot twist arrives totally out of nowhere that feels a little too “wink wink” unless it too was played straight in which case it was poor writing for entirely different reasons. The romance between El Mariachi and Carolina doesn’t cohere in a plot sense though the sizzling sexual chemistry between Banderas and Hayek was so intense that it threatened to derail the film. They have a love scene that is among the absolute sexiest in mainstream cinema. Desperado might not be quite perfect, but as far as B-movies go, it’s more than you could ever hope for.

Final Score: A-

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Bjork1

I love me some Bjork, but that lady is crazy. I mean that in the best possible way, but you don’t show up to the Academy Awards in a swan dress (and also wear said dress on the cover of Vespertine) if you aren’t a little nutty. Also, if anyone has watched her performance from the Colbert Report last year where shew as promoting Biophilia, you can’t think anything other than “Damn. Bjork is a little insane.” But, of course, that is at least half of why we love her. She’s playing Bonnaroo this year. In fact, she’s the highest billed person on the line-up behind the three headliners (Paul McCartney, Mumford & Sons, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers). And there’s a good reason why. Bjork makes amazing music. If Radiohead and pure sexuality had a baby with an 808 machine, it would sound something like Bjork. So, we’re going to use Bjork’s big break-out hit, “Army of Me,” to get the ball rolling on the big ball of crazy and awesome that should define her concert. It’s going to be really great.

 

Who says serious music also can’t have a wicked sense of humor? When people talk about the two great Brit pop bands of the 1990s, the two most common answers are Blur or Oasis (I interviewed the drummer of Keane and he chose Blur). However, if you were a fan of independent music in the 1990s and alt rock in general (and you have a sort of hipster taste), there’s a good chance you might say Pulp instead of either of those bands. They may not have had the success in the States that Blur or Oasis had (and certainly were never quite as big as Blur or Oasis anywhere), but there’s a decent argument to be made that they actually produced better music. There’s no better opening statement for an argument for Pulp’s superiority than to listen to their groundbreaking satire on class tourism, “Common People” (which was basically a giant fuck you to the faux-populism at the heart of both Blur and Oasis). It doesn’t hurt that it has one of the most remarkable and ear-burrowing melodies of the 1990s. I’m not sure if I agree with Pitchfork or NME that it’s the single best single of the 1990s, but if it’s not in your top 10 just after two or three listens, you need to get your ears checked. I’ll let Jarvis Cocker and crew do my arguing for me.

 

Anyone who’s read my review of Ran knows that my favorite play by William Shakespeare is King Lear. It’s dark and depressing, and there’s not much in the way of catharsis for the audience. There’s so much scheming and backstabbing; it’s just brilliant, and it was love at first read for me. Another one of Shakespeare’s plays that is as political as King Lear is Richard III which I have somehow managed to never read or see a production of. That is an unfortunate truth that I have come to regret as today I finally watched my first adaptation of Richard III and it was brilliant. It reminded me quite a bit of what would happen if King Lear and A Song of Ice and Fire had a baby where the main character was a completely sociopathic villain. Richard of Gloucester has leaped to the forefront of my favorite Shakespearean roles, and were it not for a slightly campy and over-the-top ending to this radical re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play, 1995’s Richard III could have been nearly as good as Ran.

Set in an alternative history of the 1930s or ’40s where a fascist monarchy controls England, Richard III is Shakespeare’s plays seen through the lens of 20th century horrors. As his brother King Edward slowly succumbs to a terminal illness, Richard of Gloucester (Lord of the Ring‘s Ian McKellan) schemes to usurp the throne. With methodical precision, Richard kills off his family members left and right while securing powerful friends with promises of high rank in his court. Going so far as to have his pre-pubescent nephews locked up in London Tower and eventually murdered, Richard, a hunchback with a paralytic right arm, wipes out all of his rivals that have been left over from the War of the Roses til he ascends to the throne as King Richard III. When his endless grab for power finally causes the rest of the British nobility to declare “enough”, it is up to the Earl of Richmond to lead an army to despose of this evil monarch.

The movie has a fine ensemble cast (and Ian McKellan’s snub for an Oscar nomination is criminal). Annette Bening shines as always as Queen Elizabeth (the wife of Richard’s brother, Edward IV). Robert Downey Jr. gives a nicely flamboyant take on Lord Rivers, another heir to the throne that Richard has murdered in his bed while Lord Rivers is making love. Jim Broadbent is the perfect toadie and the ultimate kiss-ass as the Duke of Buckingham that helps Richard ascend to the throne and does his murderous bidding (until he can’t handle the thought of murdering the young Princes). Maggie Smith, Dominic West (McNulty!), and Jim Carter round out the stellar cast. However, the weight of the film is all on Ian McKellan’s humpbacked shoulders and he carries it like a champion. Richard is basically a complete monster, but Ian McKellan plays him so well that he remains easily the most interesting person on the screen. Whether it’s his asides to the audience reminding us what a bastard he is or the indifferent way he orders the murders of everyone around him, McKellan brings life to a character that would seem far too easy to oversell.

Books and books have been written on Shakespeare’s play (which is edited both in terms of setting as well as content often though most of Shakespeare’s lines remain intact) so I’ll stick to how this fared as a film adaptation. In short, it was completely riveting. For the entirety of the film (except when I was laughing at the almost farcical nature of the film’s end), I was glued to my screen. The film has the color and energy of the jazz age with all of the darkness and depravity of the Third Reich. The film takes the Nazi Germany parallels very seriously and this is essentially what happens when you combine Shakespeare with Nazis and it’s brilliant. Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, placing the play in a modern setting while still using the play’s original lines didn’t create a silly or annoying aspect of the film. All of the actors were up to the challenge of delivering these iconic lines (“My horse, my horse. My kingdom for a horse!” or “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of york”) without making them feel cheesy or artificial in the film’s context.

My only complaint remains the ending which suddenly transforms this quiet and cerebral film into an action piece that seemed intrusive to the rest of the film’s style. For all fans of Shakespeare, if you’ve managed to miss this little gem, it’s worth your time. Richard of Gloucester has long been one of the most coveted roles for serious actors to portray and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a real shame that I had waited til I was nearly 23 years old to finally see a version of this delightful part of Shakespeare’s body of work because it outshines nearly everything else, and I would love to see a stage play version that was entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s original work. I’m now curious to find out how much this film changed in terms of basic plot (beyond the setting changes) from the original work and which version I would ultimately prefer.

Final Score: A-

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just the mention of the series is sure to prompt a massive debate between anime fans. The only anime series to garner more critical attention and scholarly analysis is the universally loved Cowboy Bebop, and Neon Genesis Evangelion is equally likely to prompt fans to call it the greatest anime of all time as it for it to cause its detractors to name it an over-rated, pretentious, and muddled mess. I’ve only watched about half of the series in the past so I don’t have a stake in this debate though my initial impression of the show was that it was one of the most starkly psychological and character-driven anime series that I had ever watched. Studio Gainax is responsible for two of the anime series I’ve reviewed so far, FLCL and Gurren Lagann. Those series are marked as the happier and angst free alternatives to the depression and alienation driven stories of Neon Genesis Evangelion (which was made at the height of creator Hideaki Anno’s own personal battle with depression). While the dark and dismal tone that propels much of the action of NGE is potentially not for everyone, for people that are searching for an intelligent and well-written alternative to your average shonen fighting program, NGE should be right up your alley as it manages to deconstruct every aspect of the mecha subgenre of anime (at least until it became the trope codifier of mecha shows) and crafts a remarkable cast of characters that feel more alive and memorable than nearly every other anime out there.

The basic premise of Neon Genesis Evangelion is a near future Earth where a cataclysmic event known as the “Second Impact” (which hasn’t really been explained yet) wiped out a large amount of the Earth’s population and caused drastic climate change and upheaval. Earth has slowly started to recover, and in the city of New Tokyo-3, the U.N. funded agency known as NERV has been tasked with protecting what remains of humanity from a mysterious alien force that has been attacking over the years. Known as Angels, these eldritch abominations can’t be stopped by conventional weapons and only the top secret robots known as Evangelion (or EVAs for short) can defeat them. 14 year old Shinji Ikari is called to Tokyo-3 by his father, the head of the Evangelion project (and a man Shinji hasn’t spoken to in years), to pilot one of the EVA units and fight off the alien forces invading Earth. Shinji isn’t a trained soldier. On the contrary, he’s just a kid (and an emotionally scarred one at that). When tasked with the defense of humanity, Shinji breaks down and refuses his call to arms. Only when he realizes that the alternative is another 14 year old, a girl so physically broken that she can no longer walk, does Shinji step into the EVA unit. Once again, not trained in how to fight, Shinji freezes in battle and is demolished by the first Angel he encounters. After his mind completely snaps under the stress of battle, the EVA seemingly acts on its own and saves Shinji’s life (and that of everyone in Tokyo-3) by defeating the Angel.

Serving alongside Shinji in NERV (besides his estranged father) are Captain Misato Katsuragi, Doctor Ritsuko Akagi, and Rei Ayanami. Misato is Shinji’s direct superior in the EVA program and the only one who understands just how deeply broken this child is. Though Misato intentionally puts forth a ditzy and laid back demeanor, she’s a serious alcoholic and is as prone to troubled inner monologues and angst as Shinji. Recognizing the kindred spirit (in terms of pain) she has in Shinji, they quickly become room mates so that Shinji won’t have to live on his own in this town (because his father wants nothing to do with him besides using him for work). Ritsuko is one of the head scientists of NERV. She’s been given the least character development so far. As of yet, she seems to only be a cynical and cold woman. Rei is the only other EVA pilot besides Shinji. If Shinji is a scarred and emotionally fractured child, Rei is a vase that’s been thrown against the wall and completely shattered. Outside of her work as an EVA pilot, she speaks to absolutely no one at the school that she and Shinji attends and appears capable of displaying absolutely no emotion except when it comes to Shinji’s father. While Shinji’s dad cares absolutely nothing about his son, he has been willing to risk injury to protect Rei, and the only time that Rei has shown any emotion the entire series is when Shinji insulted his father and Rei proceeded to slap Shinji.

The show is absolutely rife with religious and psychological symbolism to the point that if you freeze frame any of the more important moments of an episode, you’re liable to notice at least one bit of Freudian sexual symbology or Christian iconography. In the opening credits alone, you see the Kabbalah symbol of Sephiroth (which to be fair was also heavily used in Full Metal Alchemist) and whenever the first Angel is finally defeated, you see a giant cross (on several different occasions). Shinji is accosted by the severed head of his EVA unit early on (these machines take a serious beating) and if I wasn’t supposed to see vaginal symbolism when its eye first opened, then I might need to see a shrink about reading too deeply into scenes. Sexuality is in fact one of the larger themes of the series (though it hasn’t gotten quite as apparent at this point), and the painful awkwardness of Shinji going through his own sexual awakening cna be very difficult to watch. However, the most prominent themes of these opening episodes are alienation and the psychological costs of being a child soldier. There’s an entire episode which centers around Shinji totally running away from his own responsibilities and riding around trains and buses and the countryside in total and debilitating despair. By the time Shinji fights his second Angel, he’s basically a shell of a child who does everything asked of him without question (0r any emotion) and goes absolutely bat-shit crazy on an Angel when his fight or flight instincts finally kick in. Many anime have used the “determination” aspect as a way to show a sudden increase in skill or fighting ability. NGE completely deconstructs this plot device by showing just how damaged someone becomes when they are constantly pushed to these types of breaking points.

As much as I love the show’s story to this point (it’s one of the most mature anime of all time [and by mature I mean intelligent and thoughtful]), it’s animation could have used some work. This series is notorious for the fact that by the end of the show’s run, it had completely ran out of money, and the last several episodes featured many recycled shots and long still images rather than actual animation. While the series original episodes don’t have this problem quite as obviously and the major action sequences look totally awesome (it’s great that hte show can combine psychological drama and giant robots fighting), a healthy portion of any given episode is you looking at the exact same image for around half a minute while you hear copious amounts of exposition or character development. While some of these long stills look great from an artistic perspective, it sorts of draws attention to the fact that I’m watching a cartoon rather than immersing myself in the show’s world. NGE‘s plot is better than Full Metal Alchemist ever could be (and that’s my second favorite anime that I’m dissing) but at least FMA‘s art (in Brotherhood) always had my jaw on the floor about how beautiful the show looked. The character models in NGE look good from a conventional classic anime point of view, but there’s still nothing remarkable about this show’s art like there was with later Gainax programs like FLCL or Gurren Lagann.

If you’re an anime fan and you haven’t already watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, you need to go ahead and make it a priority. This is a great and challenging program (so far). Most of the controversy surrounding the fan (and what causes the divisions between its haters and its fans) doesn’t arise til closer to the series end, and I’m nowhere near there yet. As it is, Neon Genesis Evangelion remains one of the anime series (alongside Cowboy Bebop) that doesn’t make me feel guilty about still being a bit of an otaku even though I’m 22 years old (and just two months shy of being 23. shiver…). It’s smart and entertaining. You really can’t ask for more. And ever since Gurren Lagann, well-written programs about robots fighting other giant robots/creatures/aliens feeds directly on a strange pleasure principle. The only reason why you may not appreciate this show is if you haven’t seen any of the mecha shows that came before it. This series completely eviscerates so many of the genre conventions of those programs but unwittingly became the standard bearer for all future giant mecha shows. So, if you’ve only seen the robot programs that came after, you may not realize just how influential this program really was. Regardless though, this show deserves the attention of all anime fans who still haven’t somehow discovered this seinen classic.

Final Score: A-

 I’m a political science major in school. For a long time (til the realities of politics jaded me beyond repair), it was a dream of mine to pursue a career in politics and run for public office. A poster of President Obama has hung in every one of my dorm/apartment bedrooms since he started to run for president. When I was in high school, I attended a program called American Legion Boys Nation (President Clinton was part of it when he was younger as well) where our group of boys got to meet with President Bush and ask him questions. So, I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for political cinema, especially political cinema like Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that shows idealistic Americans standing up against the party machines for what’s right. I just finished re-watching Rob Reiner’s The American President for the first time since high school, and while it obviously is nowhere near the cinematic masterpiece of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it’s still a great and romantic look at the White House with a fantastic cast and a sharply written script.

The American President is the story of a fictional U.S. President, the liberal, idealistic widower Andrew Shephard (Michael Douglas). He’s nearing his re-election bid, but since his approval rating is in the 60% range, he knows he has plenty of political capital to get his legislation passed, namely an important crime bill and an important environmental bill. President Shephard’s administration is knocked for a loop though when President Shephard begins to date Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a lobbyist for a powerful environmental PAC. The Republican running against President Shephard uses this as a way to attack the President’s character, and when Sydney’s past ties to radical leftist organizations arise, the relationship becomes even more of a problem.

Aaron Sorkin wrote the script for the movie (The Social Network, The West Wing, Studio 60) and the script really nails the nuances of Whitehouse back room deals and legislative leg pulling better than anything since Mr. Smith. I know a lot about politics, and it was nice to see a movie that shows just how little power the President can really have some time. Also, it was nice to see such a positive portrayal of a liberal, intellectual holding the White House. This film might be pure left-wing propaganda, but since I’m a left-wing socialist, that’s perfectly fine by me. There was also just something endearingly sincere about Shephard and Sydney’s relationship. I like a good romance, and this did the job well.

Annette Bening is one of the most talented actresses working in Hollywood. She has been for the last 20 years now. I am not attracted to her in the slightest bit physically, but there is just something so subtle and nuanced about every single one of her performances that always blows my mind. Sydney is a fairly powerful and successful woman on her own, and you never once get the feeling from Bening’s performance or Sorkin’s script that she is attracted to the President for his power. Michael Douglas was a Hollywood sex symbol for 20 years and this film is another exhibit why. He can play smart and charming men whose wits and brains are as important as their looks. When he gives the final speech of the film, it made me wish that this movie’s scriptwriters would write something like that for President Obama to knock out of the ballpark.

If you like politics and aren’t a member of the tea party or think that Sarah Palin is an inspiration to us all, you should pop this one into your DVD player. It’s a sweet and romantic comedy that stimulates your brain as well as your emotions. The final act of the film can be seen as a liberal call-to-arms, and since us liberals are often far too passive for our own goods, we all need to be a little inspired every now and then. Sure, the film is a little too idealistic for its own good and the politics are a little romanticized, but if we ever want to keep faith in our political system, maybe our politics need a little romance.

 Final Score: A-

 Since I’ve reviewed three anime series for this blog (and will be reviewing Neon Genesis Evangelion whenever Netflix decides to actually have it in stock), it should come as no surprise that I love anime. I also love science fiction. I especially love cyberpunk. Perhaps, that has something to do with the fact that I’m part of the generation that has spent as much on the time the internet as we have in real places. So, a film that’s considered a classic of both anime in general and specifically cyberpunk, 199X’s Ghost in the Shell, should have been a movie that I loved. And while perhaps I just had a really terrible subtitle translation job (although this is the official Blu-Ray re-release so I doubt it), I thought this film was a unmitigated mess of techno-philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I found nearly impossible to follow (and not in that good David Lynch sort of way), and by the time the film was over, I really had no idea what had just happened in the movie I watched.

Ghost in the Shell is a story set in a futuristic Japan where people are able to directly connect their brains to the internet and cyborgs (people that have human brains but robotic bodies) walk the streets as peers with the regular humans. However, because humanity has become so integrated with the digital world, it is possible for expert hackers to take control over a person’s brain from the internet through a concept known as Ghost-hacking. Once the world is set up, which is actually done fairly well, that’s when the movie falls apart because other than knowing who the villain was, I had no idea what his motivations were, how he had been captured, or what the fuck happened at the movie’s end. There’s a lot, lot, lot of talking in this anime and not in a good Neon Genesis Evangelion sort of way.

If you’re a fan of cyberpunk, I’m going to go ahead and guess you’ve already seen this. Any one who’s watched the movie and actually understood the ending, I would appreciate an explanation because I had no idea. Pretty much there are only two good things I can say about this film. The score was pretty fantastic. It was awesome. The animation was really good too, although I don’t know why the movie had to have so much gratuitous and unnecessary nudity. I can’t really recommend this to anyone, unless you’re a serious otaku, and then as I’ve said, you’ve probably already seen it.

 Final Score: C

Mallrats

I’ve managed to come down with either a fairly massive sinus infection or I’ve got the flu. I’m not really sure which it is and I can’t particularly afford to go the doctor. Well, tonight, I needed some comfort food for this blog. Something from a director that I love and that can do no wrong for me. Kevin Smith is one of my all-time favorite directors. Chasing Amy is currently in a three-way tie for my favorite film of all time, along with Annie Hall and Pulp Fiction. I hadn’t watched Mallrats in a while so I figured I would pop it in the DVD player, relax, and have some good laughs. I forgot how freaking terrible this movie is.

Mallrats is about two vitriolic best friends, T.S. (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee). They’re layabouts and slackers, and Jason Lee plays the role he plays best, an obnoxious, man-child. They’ve both managed to get dumped by their girlfriends on exactly the same day. So, they do what they do best. They go to the mall. As the tagline says, “they don’t work there. They don’t shop. They just hang around”. I work at the mall, and I know the type and it’s actually done fairly well. The movie is the fairly predictable story of how they win back their girls. I don’t feel like describing more cause the movie was pretty bad by Kevin Smith standards. Although it does manage in scenes to keep some of Smith’s trademark dialogue in tact. Jason Lee is pretty much the only good and watchable thing about this film. I guess how super hot Shannon Doherty is was another reason to watch

Final Score: C+