Alright, so I’m not really sure if there’s anyone out there who’s been wondering where I’ve been, or why there hasn’t been an update in a minute, but I thought I would let all of y’all know what’s goin’ on since I haven’t died mysteriously or dropped off the face of the earth! My lack of updating recently has been mainly due to the fact that there hasn’t really been anything exciting I’ve wanted to see or write about lately……..that’s it, really. I sort of decided to take the month of January off since there was absolutely NOTHING of value coming out in the notorious Hollywood dumping ground month……that movie Mama looked interesting, but I still haven’t seen it yet. I’ve also just been busy with other aspects of my life, working all the damn time plus trying to get things with my musical endeavors off the ground. Basically, I only update when I have a good chunk of time, and I haven’t really had a good chunk of time. I’ve still been seeing movies however – I never stop doing that! The only one that I saw that I really felt like writing about was David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis….which I might still write about, but I haven’t decided yet. Rest assured though, there will be a long, drawn-out, thoroughly exhaustive movie review coming out of my brain and onto the internet very soon! In the meantime, I hope no one out there has grown impatient with my total negligence, and that you’re still being entertained by my other crazy ass reviews! Stay tuned for another review coming very, very soon, and thanks so much for reading ‘em in the first place! Alright, Trenton out!
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Hello there, dear readers! Soooo due to both crazy scheduling in my daily life as well as my laptop being MIA for almost two weeks, I haven’t been able to post in quite a long time, and for this, I am most apologetic and ashamed. HOWEVER! In lieu of this vast gap in movie review posting, I have decided to go ahead and do my very first ever MOVIE REVIEW COMBO to make up for lost time! That’s right, instead of one long, giant ass review of one movie, you get several semi-long reviews about a variety of films! Don’tcha just love the feeling of compensation? Well get ready, my friends, because this is like a movie review OVERLOAD…in the best sense of the word! COMMENCE!
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Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Daniel Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, Hal Holbrook & Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
Produced by Steven Spielberg & Kathleen Kennedy
Cinematography by Janusz Kamiński
Music by John Williams
Edited by Michael Kahn
There’s a certain type of feeling when you’re walking into a movie with this much pedigree. It’s an almost curious, theme park-like sense of wonder, the kind that fills you with anticipation for some kind of experience you’re about to have while you’re shuffling in to find your seats with the rest of the congregated citizens. You know you’re about to see something significant unfold…but you’re not really sure what. At least, that’s what I was feeling as I walked into the theater screening Steven Spielberg’s latest sprawling opus, Lincoln – the kind of feeling that this certainly wasn’t gonna be any regular come-and-go, fast-food type of flick. This was gonna be a four-course gourmet meal type of flick, the sort of dish served to you by the utmost professional and fancy chefs, all with exceedingly gi-normous track records for producing the zestiest types of exotic film flavors. Translated from weird, I’m saying that this movie has pristineness and dignity embedded into its DNA right from the start: It’s a biopic directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, about one of the most iconic and legendary figures in American (and world) history – Abraham Lincoln. Oh, and not to mention John Williams and Janusz Kamiński – legends both – doing the score and the cinematography respectively, for a film written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. Plus, a huge cast of talented character actors. GEE. I wonder how much THIS is going to suck?!
Of course, Lincoln delivers every bit of cinematic esteem, credibility and bliss you could ever hope for in spades. It’s a 2 ½ hour-long exploration of the trials and tribulations a wise yet worn-out and weary leader of a fledgling, self-destructive nation must endure to somehow try and keep the whole damn thing from falling apart…oh, and also make some fucking real progress in the process. In 1865. Obviously, this is going to be a long, dialogue-heavy piece that focuses on performances and features little-to-no massive explosions. If the thought of sitting through something like that somehow startles or frightens you, then I suggest you go watch the completely relevant and entirely necessary new Red Dawn remake playing in the theater down the hall, because this is pure old-school film drama-cy turned up to Maximum Nobility Overdrive Power (MNOP). Long, slow-paced, contemplative, moment-focused, politically charged, philosophically complex, mood-building filmmaking that – despite those seemingly droll adjectives I just listed – never ONCE feels boring. Now that’s a damn hard thing to do, and Spielberg & Co. got juuuust the precise amount of baller cred to pull the whole damn thing off. Quite simply, they’ve lived up to every expectation I could have had for a movie of this caliber – it’s a damn fine piece of filmmaking.
Now, that isn’t to say that the narrative-bound Lincoln is a perfect movie. It isn’t. But, it’s far above the standard set by the average modern film, and it is sensationally executed by everyone involved – most especially the gifted cast, populated by all types of actors from all over the place who will have you saying “don’t I know that guy from somewhere?” a couple of times. Essentially, Lincoln is the story of our 16th president’s valiant efforts to both end the morally, physically, mentally, and financially taxing Civil War, and to pass the controversial 13th amendment, which would effectively end slavery in America for all time. Having just been re-elected to a 2nd term, Lincoln doubles his efforts to accomplish these two goals by any means necessary – even risking his reputation as an honest man at one point to pull it off in a pinch. The movie focuses on the political atmosphere of the era, with many scenes detailing the somewhat petty and unproductive arguments in the House of Representatives and the political bulldogging to get one’s own agenda accomplished. (Some things never change, huh?) Lincoln knows the 13th Amendment will never pass if the war is ended before it goes to vote, so he focuses all the attention he can on getting the Amendment voted upon before the bloody war reaches its conclusion…a dangerous ploy, given that the war is claiming lives everyday and most people would not approve of Lincoln’s stalling just to free some people from eternal enslavement. Such are the risks taken when trying to make history.
The film also explores Lincoln’s personal relationship with his family as well, particularly with his wife and older son. This is where things begin to get a little shaky in the film’s narrative, specifically with the subplot involving Lincoln’s son Robert and his desperate attempt to participate in the war that his presidential father is trying to end. Robert is portrayed by the talented but tragically underused Joe Gord-Lev, in a role that provides a teensy bit of familial drama compounding upon Lincoln’s overbearing burdens, but is ultimately overshadowed by Sally Field as Lincoln’s devoted but overemotional wife, providing all the familial crises needed for Lincoln to be thoroughly stressed. The way the film sort of skims over this juicy conflict with his son makes it feel like it shouldn’t have really been in the movie in the first place – I mean, it definitely gives us another insight into Lincoln’s life, and there are a few really nice scenes with Robert and Abraham, but overall the subplot ends up feeling tacked on and underused, mainly because there’s so much more important stuff the movie’s trying to focus on. Joe Gord-Lev does nicely, but it just starts to stray into “we had to throw this in here too” territory. It’s really the biggest problem with the movie, apart from its length – but I’m not really bothered by long movies (unless they FEEL long, which Lincoln does not) so I give that a pass.
Now of course, Daniel Day-Lewis tears acting an even newer asshole with his warm, thoughtful performance as the title character. The role was originally going to go to Liam Neeson, who might have been nice in the part, but since he’s recently become more of schlocky actor in recent years (Wrath of the Titans, anyone?), an actor of Day-Lewis’s pedigree is far better suited for this monumental role. You pretty much forget you’re watching an actor whenever Day-Lewis is onscreen – such is the strength of his acting prowess. Now, personally, I still prefer Day-Lewis’s powerhouse performance as a greedy oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood –that is simply one of the greatest performances in all of cinematic history.But in this film, he really imbues Lincoln with a sense of almost godly prestige, yet totally approachable openness all at once…it’s a subtle and tricky balance, but he pulls it off nicely. I really liked how pretty much everyone around Lincoln was portrayed as having a sort of reverence towards him – like they were standing in the presence of someone clearly beyond them. It’s juxtaposed sublimely with Day-Lewis’s human portrayal of this man, a man who was obviously already a legend in his own time. There’s a great scene in the movie where Lincoln walks into a busy and frantic war room, with people running to and fro in a storm of hurried chaos. Lincoln simply begins telling a lighthearted story to seemingly nobody in particular, but everyone in the room stops everything they’re doing and shuts the fuck up, just listening to the man tell his seemingly out of place yet highly relevant tale. This scene – as well as a few other storytelling moments – really show how Lincoln was not just a gifted public speaker who knew how to address a crowd, but also a warm and friendly human being who’s not above taking a moment to sit back and spin a yarn despite pressing matters weighing down constantly. It’s a tricky nuance to pull off, and Daniel Day-Lewis pulls it off with absolute expertise. Basically what I’m saying here is, there is absolutely no hope for any other actor nominated for the 2012 Best Actor Oscar next year – Day-Lewis has this one in the bag.
Lincoln isn’t really a biopic in the conventional sense of the term – it doesn’t focus on his entire life, in a somewhat vain attempt to convey a person’s entire complex story. Instead, it centers on perhaps the most important period of Lincoln’s life, in which almost every single aspect of the world was against him and yet he somehow managed to pull off ending a bloody, gruesome war and freeing an entire group of people from horrible servitude. In this sense, it’s more of a political thriller than anything, with Lincoln as the main character. As an audience, we’re left to sort of fill in the rest of his story with the information presented to us, and that information presents Lincoln as a determined yet calm and patient individual who knows how to play his cards right. Like Lincoln, the movie knows how to take its time, and the end result is considerably elegant. Overall, Lincoln is a competently made and genuinely though-provoking portrait of one of America’s most compassionate and honorable leaders during a time of considerable crisis.
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Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood & John Goodman
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by John Gatins
Produced by Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, John Rapke, Steve Starkey & Robert Zemeckis
Cinematography by Don Burgess
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Let me just get this out of the way first: Denzel Washington is my absolute favorite actor. Of ALL time. The dude simply commands the screen whenever he’s on it, playing every role that’s handed to him with honesty, intensity, emotional complexity, and obvious skill. He’s definitely been in a few clunkers in his time (Heart Condition, Virtuosity, Ricochet) but even in the worst films of his catalog he ALWAYS turns in a great performance. Besides, the amount of quality films he’s been in far outweighs the schlock, so he can easily be forgiven for a few early career missteps. He’s just a natural actor, someone who was clearly born to be a performer of the highest form. He can take an otherwise mediocre and somewhat formulaic cop flick like Training Day and turn it into a grade-A film simply based on his performance alone. Basically, the D rules. Okay, now that my showering of overblown fanboy praise is out of the way, we can focus on his latest tour de force: the emotional, tense, and dramatically powerful Flight. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, in a welcome return to live-action filmmaking after some hit-or-miss forays into the realm of motion-capture animation that his homie Steven Spielberg utterly upstaged him in with The Adventures of Tintin, Fight is a compelling if sometimes questionable character study that focuses on the struggles of alcoholism as well as the pressure of being in the public light. And if you’re going to be focusing an entire story solely on a single character, you best get a damn fine actor to fill the part. Luckily, Zemeckis was wise enough to hire Denzel Washington for the role.
Flight begins in a trashed hotel room, one that has obviously been filled with lots of booze-drinking and sex very recently. We’re introduced right away to William “Whip” Whitaker, who groggily answers the ringing phone to argue with his ex-wife while the naked woman he’s with goes about her business in the background. Clearly, this guy is of the self-destructive sort. After having a few drinks and few snorts of cocaine, Whip cleans himself up and goes in to his job – being a pilot for a commercial airliner, with this specific flight travelling from Orlando to Atlanta. Yup, he’s pretty responsible. Right off the bat, Flight throws us an interesting curveball – it gives us a lead character that we just might not want to support very much over the next 2 hours. Whip himself is clearly a likeable guy – he’s charismatic, charming, and has a pretty good sense of humor with the people around him. He just happens to make some incredibly poor decisions, especially when you take into account he’s personally responsible for the lives of more than 100 people aboard his aircraft. So, we’re shown that Whip is actually a pretty damn good pilot despite his inebriated mindset by successfully navigating the plane out of a very nasty storm right after takeoff. After making himself a nice mid-flight blend of vodka and orange juice before passing out, Whip is knocked conscious by a sudden jolt in the flight. Something is wrong with the plane’s mechanics, and the plane begins to nosedive. While his co-pilot begins to freak out, Whip stays utterly calm and begins trying to save everyone on board. After one of the most intense and harrowing plane crash scenes I’ve ever seen, Whip manages to sustain the plane’s gliding speed by inverting it – as in, flipping the plane upside-down. It’s an insane and visually stunning move that miraculously works – the plane crashes in a field, and most of the passengers walk away with their lives.
Instantly, Whip comes to be recognized as a public hero – someone who managed to save nearly every soul aboard a seemingly doomed flight. Unfortunately, the few deaths resulting from the plane’s malfunction – including Katerina Marquez, the flight attendant Whip had gotten busy with the night before – bear down upon Whip’s psyche far more than the saved lives do. Not to mention the toxicology reports taken from Whip’s unconscious body upon arrival at the hospital, which verify that Whip was indeed inebriated at the time of the accident. This pretty much means that even though Whip was able to miraculously rescue most of the people aboard the doomed airplane, and the accident itself wasn’t his fault, he’s still liable for being drunk and flying a goddamn airplane. Ya just can’t do that, ladies and gents. Wrought with guilt over his drinking problem, Whip immediately tries to quite alcohol cold turkey, and looks like he’ll be successful at first, but once he receives word of his toxicology report and his impending lawsuit he…starts…drinking again.
Flight does a pretty good job of showing a man confronting his own guilt while simultaneously struggling with addiction, and it handles it in a mostly realistic way. I say “mostly” because something about Whip actively quitting drinking before he’s made aware of a toxicology report, then immediately starting to drink afterward, rings a little false to me. I just don’t know why somebody would make that sort of decision, especially after they have already resolved to STOP drinking in the first place. Wouldn’t continuing not to drink be the most sensible thing to do? Now, I myself am not an alcoholic, so I can’t speak on the logical machinations of a mind not only addicted to alcohol, but overcome with guilt, but basic deductive logic would denote that if you’re under scrutiny for drinking on the job, and you quit drinking before you’re even aware you’re under said scrutiny, that you would probably just say “well, good thing I stopped doing that shit” and continue being sober. However, it also sort of makes sense that the overbearing guilt of the entire situation would lead to that mindset being eradicated, so I can see it working that way too.
What I’m trying to get at here is, it simply doesn’t make any sense for Whip to just keep drinking irrationally when it’s been established that he knows the drinking isn’t a great idea in the first place. I understand that’s the point of the whole movie, but it’s just really hard to remain sympathetic for a main character when he is continuously making self-destructive and boneheaded decisions, with seemingly no effort to even try and stop. Apart from the brief period of time Whip tried to stop drinking right after the crash, there’s no other point in the film where we see him struggle with trying to remain sober – at least, until it’s forced upon him by other people. Some scenes with him deciding to quit, and then slowly but surely turning back to the bottle would have been appreciated! He stubbornly and inexplicably sticks with getting wasted, to the point that it just starts to get ridiculous and you can’t help but say “is this guy a damn moron?” Now, I understand that alcoholism is NOT an easy thing to kick, I really do. But in terms of movie logic, why was it even shown that he tried to kick his alcoholism before he was even aware of his toxicology report when he makes absolutely no effort to remain sober AFTER he is told about said report – the results of which are extremely incriminating and could land him in TONS of trouble?! The logic there just doesn’t add up to me. I totally get that Whip is acting irrationally and self-destructively, perhaps even somewhat purposefully because he might believe he should be punished on a subconscious level, but his complete lack of effort to even try and be a little sober is not only frustrating to everyone around him in the film, but to the audience as well. I found myself questioning his actions many times throughout the film, and not really in the way I feel like the filmmakers intended…less in a concern-for-the-character type of questioning, and more in the “is this realistic?” type of way.
That being said, Flight still packs a powerful dramatic punch, and it really gets under the skin of what addiction truly is. We see a pretty unorthodox relationship build between Whip and Nicole, a young heroin-addicted woman whom Whip meets in the hospital right after the crash. (She was in the hospital because of a heroin overdose.) Whip and Nicole take an instant liking towards each other, both broken people crippled by addiction who are able to console each other in times of need. Their relationship blossoms, but Whip’s alcoholism and pride begin to drive a wedge between them, and it’s pretty sad to see. It’s actually easier to sympathize with Nicole’s character, because she actually makes an effort to recover from her addiction without any outside reason while Whip egregiously continues on with his, despite the fact he has an overbearing burden directly related to that addiction weighing down upon him. She gives him support and even tries to get him to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which he attends but scoffs at and leaves, brilliantly enough), but his pride ends up ruining everything…it’s pretty heartbreaking stuff.
As I said before, Flight takes the interesting choice of having a main character you can’t really sympathize with all the way through. It’s a gamble, but luckily, one that really pays off in the long run. Denzel Washington, predictably, turns in yet another incredible performance; it’s arguably his best one since Training Day, or Man on Fire at least. He really makes Whip a well-rounded character, giving him a lot of humor and seriousness all at once, and really driving home that this guy is troubled and wracked with too much grief for one man to handle. I will be both disappointed and shocked if Denzel doesn’t gain an Oscar nom for his performance in this movie – it’s just a damn shame it has to be this year, when Daniel Day-Lewis is being critically lauded and singled out as the prime contender for the Best Actor win for Lincoln. I definitely think Denzel would be a shoo-in for the win if it weren’t for Day-Lewis and his damn fine acting skills, but oh well – that’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Overall, Flight is a dramatically sound yet slightly logically flawed film that delivers on several emotional levels, and offers a pretty devastating look at the nature of addiction and being in the public eye. It shows that Robert Zemeckis is still a very competent director, and the guy to go to if you want a harrowing and realistic plane crash sequence in your movie – this flick and his earlier one Cast Away both sport the best movie plane crashes I’ve ever seen. It has great performances from the entire cast (Don Cheadle and John Goodman both do great, I didn’t really talk about them but they shine in this movie, especially Goodman as Whip’s profane yet loveable drug-dealing friend) and it takes considerable chances, and for that I can only give it my most emphatic recommendation. Plus, it’s a friggin’ Denzel movie – that alone is worth the price of admission!
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JOHN CARTER (2012)
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong & Samantha Morton
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews & Michael Chabon
Produced by Jim Morris, Colin Wilson & Lindsey Collins
Cinematography by Daniel Mindel
Music by Michael Giacchino
Edited by Eric Zumbrunnen
Some movies just don’t hit the mark they’re supposed to. This year’s horribly named yet excellently executed sci-fi/adventure epic John Carter is, unfortunately, one of those movies. It’s a movie that pretty much does everything right – methodical pacing, fun action scenes, interesting story ideas, epic and engulfing music, decent performances, and solid characters are all features of this unique flick. Sadly, some movies are destined to not find a solid audience, no matter how well-made they are. Who woulda thunk that a Disney-funded sci-fi/adventure flick that’s actually pretty well made would end up being a box office bomb?
Personally, I blame the title. John Carter is an absolutely terrible name for this film. Anything, literally anything would have been better than simply naming the flick after the main character of the movie. It could have been called Mars Battle Adventures or something generic like that and that still would have been a better name for it, because then it at least describes what you’re getting. But John Carter? That sounds like a damn inspirational sports movie or something, or some kind of character-based story about some boring schmuck. It’s just NOT evocative of what kind of movie this is. I don’t know why they didn’t just call it A Princess of Mars, the name of the sci-fi/fantasy pulp novel written in 1917 by Edgar Rice Burroughs which this film is adapted from. I guess having “Princess” in the title is just WAY too gay, so they opted to take both that word and “Mars” out of the equation – even though those are by far the most exciting and descriptive words in the whole sentence – and just lazily name it after the main character. The fact that the word “Mars” does NOT appear in the title of this film is baffling to me. Why would you pass that opportunity up?! And then you consider how the sequel – I mean, the hypothetical sequel at this point – was going to be named John Carter of Mars, which by all logic and reasoning should have been the name of THIS film, if we’re changing names and shit….aggh it just really pisses me off, because this movie totally deserved to find a wider audience and its stupid ass name probably made people think it was about some real-life asshole they never heard of. SUCH a wasted opportunity.
Because, my friends, despite its tepid reaction upon its release, John Carter is actually a pretty damn fine film – it’s exciting, it’s humorous, it’s got all kinds of crazy alien shit going on in it, and it keeps your interest all the way through. And SOMEHOW, it actually gets you to care about and sympathize with weird events and strange aliens (respectively) that don’t even correlate to our planet in the slightest. If that isn’t some good filmmaking, I don’t know what is. And hey, I’m not too surprised about that aspect either – this movie is the live-action debut of Andrew Stanton, a two-time Academy-Award winning computer-animated film director of Pixar fame, specifically Finding Nemo and WALL-E. That pretty much means that this dude is an accomplished filmmaker (even if his previous movies technically don’t take place in reality) and can definitely be trusted with material such as this.
So why did this film flop? Well, apart from the title problem I’ve already addressed, I’d have to say that it’s also because this film is pretty esoteric for the most part. It’s based on an almost 100-year old series of sci-fi books, cost a good $275,000,000(!), and featured no massively major stars of any real sort. It was pretty much a gamble from the get-go. In fact, I’m not entirely sure how or why Disney even let this film get made, and why they gave it the budget they did. I mean, they must have believed in the subject matter if they were willing to drop THAT many millions of dollars on it, right? A film this epic and large-scale surely would have been a sure bet, right? Well……no. Quite simply, the lack of any kind of public interest is the main reason this movie flopped. But the movie itself does not suck, despite what some critics out there have said.
Speaking of the movie, well, it’s about a guy named John Carter (played with Indiana Jones-esque fervor by Taylor Kitsch), a Civil War Confederate Army Captain who is accidentally transported to Mars (known as Barsoom to the locals) via a magic medallion belonging to a mysterious figure John ends up murdering in a cave. Due to the planet’s lower gravity and his different bone density, John Carter is something of a Superman on Barsoom, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and knock the shit out of enemies with extra strength. He’s instantly picked up by some aliens known as Tharks, whose leader Tars Tarkas (motion-captured by Willem Dafoe) recognizes the power within this stranger. Before long, John Carter is wrapped up in an interplanetary conspiracy and war, and must fight to protect the residents of Barsoom from an otherwise unstoppable force.
It’s a wild setup, but then again, it’s a wild movie. John Carter simply looks fantastic, executed with a visual style that shouldn’t be too surprising once you realize an animated film director made the flick. The colors are vibrant, the locations are rich, and the special effects looks extremely realistic – you can see where that $275,000,000 of Walt’s money went. Elaborate set pieces and costume design really drive home the “epicness” of the project, as well as the somewhat overblown acting. If there’s one negative thing I should say about John Carter, it’s that the acting is just a liiiiittle bit subpar. Not so bad that it’s groan inducing, but you can definitely tell that working with real, live actors is something this animation guy Stanton will have to learn over time. As lavish and elaborate as the sets and special effects are, it tends to shine a bigger light on the somewhat mundane acting. The actors do their part, and it doesn’t necessarily bog the movie down, but you can feel the somewhat forced feel coming out of the performances on occasion. It’s a shame because the rest of the movie that surrounds them is really quite vivid and wonderful. Another slight complaint I have is that the ending feels a bit rushed and forced…I don’t want to give too much away, but the film’s ending suffers from the Super Mario Bros. Ending Syndrome…a setup for a sequel that just might never be.
John Carter isn’t the game changer Disney was most likely hoping it to be. It won’t be making any huge appearances at Disneyland anytime soon. But, despite the fact the film probably came about 40 years too late, it really does a good job of being solidly entertaining, and for that I give it some credit. I’m actually pretty glad that it just exists and is now out on home video, where perhaps it will find a new life from people who missed it the first time around. It certainly deserves some kind of accolades, if only just for its production design and nothing more. But, I was very entertained while watching it, and even though I didn’t go very in depth with this review, I highly recommend it to anyone kind of on the fence about it. It’s worth your time, and maybe – just maybe – there will be another one with a better title coming out soon.
Although I highly doubt it.
Well, that does it for my first review combo. Hopefully in the future I’ll be more consistent with my updates so I don’t have to punish myself with epic multi-reviews such as this one. But, keep checking back for new reviews, and happy viewing to you all!
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)
Starring John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Ewles, Catherine McCormack & Eddie Izzard
Directed by E. Elias Merhige
Written by Steven Katz
Produced by Nicolas Cage & Jeff Levine
Cinematography by Lou Bogue
Music by Dan Jones
Edited by Royinba Onijala
Sooooo it is the 31st of October, dear readers, and you know what that means – it’s time for me to kick this off by greeting you with a jubilant and somewhat obligatory “Happy Halloween!!!” Being that it’s the spookiest time of the year, I thought it would be fitting to do a review about one of my favorite movies of all time – a truly unique and expertly crafted horror film released in 2000 by the name of Shadow of the Vampire. Of course, I use the term “horror film” very loosely with this one, because it’s really more of a darker-than-coal black comedy. In fact, I would even go so far as to say this film establishes a very interesting and unique new type of genre: gothic comedy. Because, while Shadow of the Vampire definitely sets a sublimely creepy/spooky tone and builds an atmosphere which compliments its subject matter perfectly, the movie excels in delivering ironic and well-thought out laughs which sink in deeper than the teeth of the titular vampire in question, daring to really get into the bloodstream of why vampires and cinema mix together so deliciously well. (Yeah, I really just went there. Deal with it.) Shadow of the Vampire is, in many respects, the most perfect vampire movie ever made – or certainly one of them, at least. And not only that, it’s also one of the best movies ever made about the act of filmmaking itself, and the trials, obsessions, and lengths a brilliantly mad artist will go to in order to truly manifest his exuberant vision for the world to behold and appreciate. And how can you not love that?
Shadow of the Vampire is a movie about the making of another movie called Nosferatu. Unless you’re completely unfamiliar with the annals of film history, you’ll know that Nosferatu is a bonafide cinema classic, a legendary film which is considered to be one of the most powerfully influential and realistic German expressionist films ever made. Its director, F.W. Murnau – who was already considered to be a legend in his own time (that being the late 1910s/early ‘20s) – got around the troublesome minutiae of copyright infringement by simply changing the names of the characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula story and naming his own film Nosferatu. The result was an unprecedented masterpiece, widely regarded as one of the first true horror films of the silent era, firmly cementing Murnau’s place in cinema history. But Shadow operates under one bizarre and extraordinarily juicy premise: what if not everything with the making of Nosferatu was exactly what it seemed? What if Murnau actually had the audacity to track down and hire an actual fucking vampire to portray the nightmarish vampire depicted in that 1922 masterpiece? It’s a weird premise for a movie to be sure, but one which was squeezed of every single last drop of dramatic excellence by its vastly gifted team of filmmakers and actors, and the results, my friends, are impeccable.
The film opens with one of the most compelling, eerie, and strangely beautiful opening credits sequences I’ve ever seen. We’re treated to a series of slow tracking shots depicting abstract and surreal gothic artwork, set to a steadily rising and evocative piece of scoring which eventually crescendos into a blast of dramatic glory before it swiftly dwindles down again and we’re pulled slowly out of the nightmarish vortex of medieval-looking artwork and set gently back into the real world. It’s one of the most effective and exquisitely appropriate opening credit sequences I have ever witnessed, and it sets the tone of this strange, dark, and daringly beautiful film perfectly. Next, we find ourselves on a movie set in 1920’s Berlin, where we’re introduced to most of the principal cast and some characters are effectively built. The real-life filmmaker F.W. Murnau is portrayed with perfect obsessed brilliance by John Malkovich, who easily demonstrates why he gets nominated for Academy Awards and you do not. The guy is on another level in this flick, and his performance grounds the movie in some kind of absurd yet weirdly relatable context as we watch him portray a man willing to do anything to achieve his ideal vision for the perfect vampire film. It’s high caliber stuff, people.
We see Murnau directing his female lead Greta Schröder (Catherine McCormack) in a minor scene involving her playing with a cat in a window, and we get a taste of her spoiled movie starlet attitude as she and Murnau trade subtle barbs. She’s quite displeased about having to act in front of a camera, and also at the fact she’ll have to leave Berlin to shoot on location in Heligoland. In fact, most of Murnau’s crew, including producer Albin Grau (Udo Kier), screenwriter Henrik Galeen (John Aden Gillet), and cinematographer Wolfgang Muller (Ronan Vibert) – all real-life people except for that last guy, I’m pretty sure – are confused as to why Murnau is choosing to leave the comfort of the studio to shoot at real locations. Albin tries to get Murnau to tell him some details about the mysterious actor who will be portraying the film’s titular character, but Murnau simply avoids answering him and leaves to do crazy German 1920’s drugs and do weird sex things at an endlessly peculiar club/brothel-type place. The crew is told by the other main actor in the film, Gustav (played with considerably dramatic chops and humorously arrogant gusto by standup comedian Eddie Izzard) that the mysterious actor’s name is Max Schreck, and that he already went to the location months ago to get a feel of the place. On top of that, Schreck will only be appearing onset in full makeup and completely in character as The Vampire, and the shooting of his scenes will only be done at night, in a somewhat overbearing form of method acting. Perplexed yet warily trustworthy of their director, the cast and crew set out for the location where they will finally meet the star of their movie.
And what a star he is. Without a doubt, the vampire created in this film – referred to in the credits as “Max Schreck”, even though that’s definitely not his real name – is one of the finest depictions of a true-to-legend vampire in modern cinema. Once we get a glimpse of this living, breathing realization of an iconic screen villain in the “real world” of the film, it makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck…the dude really looks creepy! Willem Dafoe portrays the vampire portraying an actor portraying a vampire in a German silent film, and he singlehandedly gives one of the best performances of his – or anyone else’s, really – entire career. Dafoe exudes tormented brilliance as Schreck the vampire, putting an extra amount of effort and detail into every facial expression and jilted movement this centuries-old creature makes. To watch his character spar with Malkovich’s is truly the stuff of cinema gold; the two actors play off of each other with absolute perfection. I really can’t say enough good things about Dafoe’s performance – if I could compare it to another, more recent complete immersion into a character’s psyche by an actor, it would have to be Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. In fact, it might even be a little bit better than that already legendary performance. To see Dafoe twist himself into new shapes, emote with his gnarled vampire voice, and contort his face into hideous yet humorous expressions is to see the true embodiment of what it is to be a devoted actor: you forget you’re watching an actor in makeup. Quite frankly, this movie would completely fall apart without the right actor in the pivotal role of the Vampire, and Dafoe is the only actor in the world who could have done it. While Dafoe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2001, he unfortunately lost to Benicio del Toro in Traffic – not necessarily the worst call in the world, as Benicio is quite exceptional in that film, but it is a complete overlooking of the absolutely harrowing transformation Dafoe undergoes in this movie – no other actor could do what he did in this role, and I think he unquestionably deserved the Oscar that year. But, what can ya do?
Anyway, back to the movie: after a transitional train sequence over which Malkovich gives one of the most powerful monologues I’ve ever heard regarding the power of motion pictures and their group’s place in it, the cast and crew arrive at their destination and begin noticing strange things right off the bat. It seems Murnau has brought along some bottles of actual blood, and Muller the cinematographer seems to be experiencing some type of strange sickness after their first night at the inn they’re staying and filming at. Despite the odd occurrences, the group begins shooting the following day, until a woman interrupts Murnau’s shot to admonish them for taking the crosses off the walls. “The crosses are NOT for decoration,” she warns gravely. Something is definitely a bit awry with these proceedings, and everyone except Murnau seems to acknowledge it.
Finally the night to shoot Schreck’s first scene comes, and Murnau has it all planned out: Gustav (in character) is walking into the shadows when suddenly, Count Orlock emerges from them, giving Gustav the convincing amount of shock and terror to translate perfectly onto the screen. Satisfied with the first take, Murnau calls it a night, much to his producer Albin’s dismay. “I would have gone anywhere at any time for that look on Gustav’s face,” Murnau professionally declares. Despite the brevity of the shoot, Muller again has another episode, falling to the floor and looking quite pale…almost like something is sucking the life force from him. Muller is rushed back to the inn to rest, and when he arrives the sight of him frightens the innkeeper lady from before, causing her to exclaim “Nosferatu!”and run away. Undeterred by the declining health of his photographer, Murnau continues shooting, with Schreck’s contract-reviewing scene with Gustav being the occasion when the entire crew finally gets a glimpse of this unconventional “actor”. After a mishap and some confusion on the set due to Gustav actually cutting himself with a knife (at Murnau’s sly direction) and a generator blowing, Murnau finds Schreck biting the neck of Muller when the lights come on. Muller is taken away as Murnau chastises his star, telling him to stay behind. Not that Schreck minds; he seems to be in utter delight at his actions…and why shouldn’t he be? He just got to taste some sweet, fresh blood from some hapless victim, just like the good ol’ days.
Shadow of the Vampire succeeds at blurring the line between fantasy and reality, bridging the gap between cinema and the macabre in a subtle and creative fashion. To see a real, live vampire (in the reality of the movie) trying to act alongside regular actors is not only highly unusual, it’s absolutely hilarious. Dafoe has the strange task of convincingly portraying an actual vampire who is terrible at acting, but is accepted as a talented actor by everyone else simply because he looks and behaves so damn convincing. It’s an awesome joke that only gets better as the movie goes along: there’s an absolutely great scene a little later in the film, after Murnau flies back to Berlin to find another cinematographer due to Muller being hospitalized and most likely killed because of Schreck’s vampire needs. Albin and Henrik are sitting around getting drunk in Murnau’s absence, and are unexpectedly joined by Schreck, who they still believe is just some crazy guy much too invested in his role. They jokingly and belittlingly begin asking him vampire questions, not expecting any real answers, but this real vampire begins providing them. He goes on at length about the novel Dracula’s inherent loneliness, expressing how absurd it is that Dracula would prepare food for his guest when he himself has not eaten food for centuries, how Dracula has to convince the man that “he is like the man.” While Albin and Henrik inquire as to how he became a vampire, Schreck pulls a bat from the air with cat-like agility and grotesquely sucks it dry in front of them, then proceeds to enlighten them on how being a centuries-old, undead, blood-sucking creature can really start to do a number on your memory. Schreck eventually stumbles away creepily, leaving Albin and Henrik to look at each other and come to the same conclusion: “What an actor.” Out of a large quantity of brilliantly written scenes in this film, this one probably takes the cake for its milking of the film’s premise for all its worth in a genius fashion.
(I’m gonna stop summarizing the plot here, mainly because I don’t want to give away what else happens in the movie, but also because I just want to talk about other things now. If you don’t like it, then bite me like Orlock muthafuckaaaaaa!)
Worth pointing out is composer Dan Jones’ quirky and evocative score, which is just as memorable and influential to the film’s feel as the characters themselves. The score really runs the horror gamut from creepy, unsettling background noise-type music, with barely audible low rumbles complimenting the film’s more intense scenes, to more melodic, jaunty tones achieved with woodwind instruments and lush string arrangements that really bring out the chilling edge to the scenes of the terror lying underneath. It’s a very appropriate score, and one that doesn’t just sound like your average movie music – an unfortunate precipice that many other film scores fall into. Another thing worth mentioning is the film’s commendable feat of recreating some of the iconic scenes from Nosferatu and showing them to us from a different perspective, namely, that of the filmmaker’s. This is probably obvious, but I should point out that anyone who is a fan of the original 1922 Nosferatu would be an absolute tool to miss out on this movie, and should probably get on seeing it ASAP if they haven’t already. Seeing the black-and-white recreations of the classic scenes from the movie is a really cool visual treat, and they’re pulled off quite proficiently.
Possibly the one greatest thing about Shadow of the Vampire – as amazing as it is in its direction, makeup effects, performances, setting, cinematography, music, pretty much everything – the reason the movie is a triumph is because of its brilliant script. Screenwriter Steven Katz’s first script is unfathomably clever, self-knowing, and most importantly, entertaining. This movie is really an example of all the right people coming together to create something unique and special – a true filmmaking dream. The movie gets right into the nitty-gritty of what makes movies movies – the spectacle, the illusion of it all. Murnau has set up the illusion of an actor playing the part of a vampire with an actual vampire, to capture the illusion and put it up on the screen for people to see in reality – it’s all meta and self-referential, two things that I highly appreciate from my movies. As much credit as Steven Katz gets for scribing this polished gem, all hats go off to E. Elias Merhige for keeping all the components together and making one of the most smartly directed films I’ve ever seen. Every nuance, every line in every scene has an extra added weight, and the tone is kept remarkably grim – you really get a feel for what the characters are going through, and what their intentions are.
Having just said that, I want to talk about the only real plot hole I’ve found in the movie. (Yeah, I like contradicting myself. What of it?!) It might be something implied within the context of the movie, I’m not really sure…I just want to elaborate on it a bit. Having watched this movie a few times, I am still not quite sure as to why Muller never just said he was being attacked by a vampire, and that the very same “actor” they’ve been filming was the one doing the attacking. It would have hurt the plot if he did, obviously, but that’s the very line of thinking where plot holes are born from. Maybe Muller isn’t the kind of guy to make waves even when something dreadful is happening to him? Maybe he didn’t think anyone would believe him if he did try to say something? Or maybe – and this is my most prevalent theory as to what might be the case – Murnau and him have some kind of weird past, one that allows Murnau to have some sort of mental control over him. Not in a psychic way or anything, but in this weird, sexual, dominating way. It’s heavily implied throughout the movie that Murnau is into weird freaky sex shit, probably of a violent nature, and at the beginning of the film there’s a scene in which the crew ponders where Murnau could be running off to after shooting is done. Henrik suggests “perhaps he has a woman?” and Muller chimes in with “Or a man.” The fact Muller says that, and some other VERY subtle evidence given through Malkovich’s performance when Muller starts getting sick, suggests to me that there’s some sort of weird, unspoken tryst between these two men that prevents Muller from telling everyone what’s really happening. The point I’m making here is, it’s never directly explained why Muller doesn’t say anything about being attacked by a fucking vampire. It is something that bothers me about the movie, and the only real “flaw” I can find with it in terms of plot progression. In the long run it doesn’t really matter, and it’s doesn’t detract from the movie necessarily, but it’s still something that puzzles me, and something I wish was more directly examined in the film. Because other than that, it’s pretty damn near flawless.
Shadow of the Vampire excels as a dark yet humorous examination of the power of cinema, the mystique of illusion, and the very unstable line between what is fantasy and what is reality. Although a complete work of fiction, the movie treats its story as if it is completely genuine, taking its subject matter deadly serious. Perhaps more than any other vampire movie I’ve seen, other than Let the Right One In, it examines with an un-romanticized eye the brutal realities of what being a vampire would be like. The cold, insufferable loneliness, the bane of being shunned for centuries, the sense of longing and tragic desire within a heart that lusts for blood…never before have I seen a vampire character so depressingly pathetic yet entirely engaging. Again, it’s a testament to Willem Dafoe’s acting abilities than he was even able to pull this hideous creature off, and actually make him pretty damn likeable along the way. The movie really brings into question as to who is really the bigger monster: the vampire hired by the director, or the director Murnau himself, a man who will do anything in his power to execute his obsessive vision – no matter who or what must be sacrificed. In the end it produces cinematic gold and inspires millions of people all over the world for generations, but is that end really worth the means? It’s a question Shadow of the Vampire brings into question but sneakily refuses to answer, leaving you to ponder the ramifications of such notions long after the credits have rolled. It’s a haunting film that leaves a lasting impression on your psyche: even if you absolutely hate Shadow of the Vampire, it’s undeniable that you will not be able to forget it for a long, long time.
So final thoughts? I highly, HIGHLY recommend checking out Shadow of the Vampire in some way before you pass into the next realm. It’s a movie that challenges perceptions and calls into question why we even love movies in the first place, and thrillingly exhibits those very reasons with utmost practicality and professionalism. It’s simply a well-made, well thought-out film that lingers with you after you see it. Not only that, but it’s PERFECT for the Halloween season, and will more than likely imbue your evening with that appropriate blend of fun and spookiness that accompanies the holiday. Do yourself a favor and check it out! And remember – this is what REAL vampire movies are supposed to be like.
Aaaaaand, just for good measure, here’s what they’re NOT supposed to be like:
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan & Paul Dano
Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson
Produced by Ram Bergman & James D. Stern
Cinematography by Steve Yedlin
Music by Nathan Johnson
Edited by Bob Ducsay
I just need to take this opportunity to express how thankful I am for the talented filmmakers. There are a million movie directors out there, and many of them succeed or fail at executing their craft in varying degrees of talent or ineptitude. And lately, it seems like there’s been a slew of unoriginal and uninspired movies coming out…don’t get me wrong, 2012 has actually been a pretty good year for movies, despite some of the horrible crap we’ve already seen thus far…and it’s a hell of a lot better than 2011 was, I can tell you that. But what I’m saying here is, sometimes there are filmmakers whom you know you can rely on. There’s nothing better than going to see a movie from a particular filmmaker whom you already respect and admire and having your already high expectations completely skyrocketed to the next level. True filmmakers like this are few and far between.
Rian Johnson is one of those filmmakers. Although his career has only started fairly recently, Johnson has already set a respectfully high standard of quality for himself at this point in his limited filmography. His debut movie, 2005’s indie film-noir high school murder mystery Brick, received widespread critical acclaim for its unique vision and execution, and pretty clever screenplay. In fact, I’m pretty certain that it’s one of my personal favorite movies, if not my #1. (It varies, but usually it’s up there.) Brick was such a memorable and original film, lifting the character archetypes from a Dashell Hammet pulp novel and dropping them into an average high school setting – a truly unusual idea, but one that Johnson pulled off to a T. Brick succeeds as a motion picture, and honestly, I find it to be one of the strongest and most surprising debut films ever made. Strong performances, strong storytelling, strong characterization and a great visual look…it just knocked it out of the park. His next film The Brothers Bloom in 2009 wasn’t as well received by critics, and was kind of looked over by audiences…to be quite honest, I haven’t even seen this film yet, despite the loving praise I just heaped upon its director. (Although I certainly plan to see it!) But Brick still rules, and once I heard about Rian Johnson’s next project, a sci-fi time travel film by the name of Looper, I knew for sure that we were in for a treat.
And what a treat it is: Looper is an absolute thrill, a truly exciting and thought-provoking time-bender of a chase story that certainly lives up to any high expectation you could throw at it and then some. It has so much energy, a unique visual edge, and such thoroughly creative ideas that you can’t help but smile while watching it unfold before you. I can certainly say it’s one of the most appealing movies that’s come out this year, and most definitely my favorite movie that’s been released in 2012 so far. It’s a movie one can really wrap the mind around, exploring all of its meanings and implications on an intimate and self-aware level. I just love seeing a movie that is aware of its universe, of its logic and rules, and illustrates how those rules can be bent in different ways. This is a movie that illustrates why going to the movies is fun, and as we all know, THOSE are the best kind.
Looper is a film about a mob hitman named Joe (masterfully pulled off by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in face-altering makeup and doing a pretty good young Bruce Willis impression) who specializes in a special kind of target: those sent from the future to be executed in the past…or rather, the present. The film takes place in OUR future of 2044, where Joe regularly deads victims of the mob sent back in time for these hitmen – known as “loopers” – to dispatch of in the past. You see, in 2074 when time travel is a reality and thus severely outlawed, getting rid of bodies is not as easy due to the technological advancements of the time. Therefore, the crimelords of the future send their “waste” back into the past, where all trace of it can be literally wiped out of existence. Seriously, HOW COOL IS THAT?! Typing that sentence ALONE was a shitload of fun, and the film delivers on all the dramatic possibilities of its premise. Joe lives a pretty lavish lifestyle, getting paid extremely exorbitant amounts of silver that are strapped to the backs of each of his kills. He goes to clubs, he does drugs, he has sex with strippers…he’s pretty much livin’ the contract killer high life.
So where’s the drama? It turns out that the mob bosses of the future have only one loose end to tie up: the loopers themselves, once they reach their would-be retirement years. In order to do away with any ties they might have to illicit time travel and über low-maintenance body disposal, the mob bosses pull a sort of dirty trick on the loopers: at some point, when it’s decided that an old ex-looper has to go, the mob bosses capture and send back that particular looper’s future self, thereby ridding any trace of affiliation with said looper from the future by ensuring a bizarre form of forced suicide in the past. After this, the looper in question is relieved of duty and allowed to live the rest of his life in complete luxurious freedom until the time comes when the mob decides to send him back to time to his own self-inflicted death. This is called “closing the loop.” It’s a pretty shitty deal, but it’s just part of what comes with the job – a job which provides a near limitless lifestyle with as much capital needed to ensure a stable and comfy existence…you know, aside from all the killing. What’s more, this process of closing the loop has started to become more and more frequent – Joe is seen “celebrating” a friend’s loop closing at a progressively frequent rate. Rumor has it this is because of a new crimelord running things in the future – a man known as The Rainmaker.
See what I’m saying? The creative standard of these ideas alone are simply through the roof! Rian Johnson’s carefully plotted script is definitely the result of some homework – even just time travel movie viewing type of homework. I’m sure Rian Johnson studied time travel of course, but the influence of many time travel movies are definitely laced throughout this film. I’ll talk a little more about that later, but for now, on with plot!
One night a looper friend of Joe’s named Seth (played with at zany, nerdy punching bag, Paul Dano-esque gusto by Paul Dano) arrives at his apartment in a worried frenzy. It seems that Seth’s had come to close his loop earlier in the day, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it and let his older self escape. I think it should go without saying that this is BAD – Lord knows what kind of universe-bending shitstorms the timeline would get into if you let a person who isn’t supposed to be there running around affecting things. Having made the biggest mistake a looper can make, and with his life on the line (in two senses), Seth seeks shelter in Joe’s apartment [oh man……….I can’t believe that actually just came to be due to circumstance]. Joe hides his buddy just as the syndicate thugs arrive there, and he gets taken into the office of his boss, Abe. Jeff Daniels fills this role, and he plays it with such a laid-back yet authoritative and assured styling that you can’t help but like the guy, even though he’s trying to kill our protagonist’s best friend. Abe is from the future himself, and acts as the mob’s representative in the past. He manages to coax Joe into giving up Seth’s location, and we are shown the grim consequences for looper who gets captured when he lets his own future self escape. There’s no way I’m gonna spoil what it is, but I will just say that is has to be seen to be believed.
Guilt-ridden yet steadfast, Joe goes back to work. One day he’s waiting for a target to arrive so he can blast it, when suddenly, POOF – a man appears, but he’s not wearing the trademark bag over the head. Joe can see who it is perfectly – it’s HIM, 30 years older. His loop has come back! And his loop is played by none other than Bruce Willis, action star extraordinaire, showing everyone that there is a reason he is revered as the badass he truly is. No sooner than 10 seconds after appearing onscreen do we see him pulling badass moves, escaping from his death as his younger self tries to kill him, and tearing out into town to achieve some unknown end. Now Young Joe is marked for apprehension at the hands of his employers and he is set out on the run in the attempt to avoid his would-be captors and hunt down his future self and kill him.
I’m going to end my plot summary here at the juicy part, because there is NO WAY I’m going to spoil what happens next. I feel I’ve already said too much, quite frankly, but this set up is only part of the entire story. Looper is able to weave a compelling and entertaining tale using all the little threads at its disposal, and it is truly a memorable experience. It’s paced incredibly well, giving us spurts of genuinely thrilling action as well as softer moments for balance, plus throwing in the occasional mix of humor to make the twisty sci-fi elements feel much more human. I want to give a hat’s off to the entire cast of this movie, since everybody pretty much kills it in their performances. Rian Johnson definitely knew what he was doing when he cast his previous Brick star as the lead in this movie. Joe Gord-Lev has quickly become one of the best actors working today, and is currently experiencing a stratospheric rise in his star power. He gives a cold-hearted yet charismatic sheen to Joe, getting us to like him even though he’s kind of a bastard who kills people for money. Then there’s Bruce Willis, looking far more badass here than he does in that friggin’ Expendables 2 movie by playing a time-hopping future version of our protagonist who’s intent to change some future shit for the better…no matter what the cost. Watching these two actors interact with each other – as different versions of the same character – is an absolute blast, and they nail it in terms of performance. I also want to mention Jeff Daniels as Abe, Joe’s boss from the future: Daniels totally grounds and humanizes this character, making him one of the most interesting antagonistic characters I’ve seen in a while. He’s just a guy doin’ his job, pretty much – the way Daniels fills the role with this lazy sternness on a guy from the future packs a few layers into every scene he’s in. I don’t want to give away too much, but there are a couple other things worth mentioning: Emily Blunt makes a pretty strong appearance as a farm-owning mother to a child in danger, and her plotline kicks in during the 2nd half of the movie. Her and her child play a very important role in the film that I won’t delve into, but they both deliver killer performances that drive home the themes of the movie solidly.
There are a lot of cool sequences in Looper. It’s the kind of movie that you can get wrapped up in and excited about, the kind of movie that gets you talking about it as you leave the theater and thinking about it on the drive home. Things flow into each other naturally, and circumstances play out in a matter we can easily follow – I hate to bring this up again (kind of), but in comparison to a movie like The Dark Knight Rises, which had a million things going on that didn’t really tie together into a cohesive story, Looper shows what it is to tell a deft yet complex story in a manner that doesn’t leave the audience struggling to keep up. It’s high praise, because there’s a lot of information being doled out for us to be aware of. Another thing worth mentioning is that the movie is surprisingly brutal too – fans of gory action will be pleased with Looper. Not to say that it’s a blood ‘n’ guts fest – cause it’s not – but there are moments where you can see how well the squib guy on the movie got paid. It serves to add to the intensity of the already brutal chase scenes the movie features, some of which are unlike anything you’ve ever seen in other movies.
So here’s the thing: we’ve all seen a jillion time travel movies before. Let’s face it, it’s been DONE. But Looper is a smart enough movie – and Johnson is a smart enough filmmaker – to understand, and even reference this fact in the movie. The movie kind of steers clear of any real logical debate on the logistics of the time and memory consistencies being altered, and for good reason. There’s a great scene in the first half of the flick when Young Joe first meets face-to-face with Old Joe in a diner to discuss the state of their…uh, “lives”, and why all this is happening. Young Joe starts asking logic-testing time travel questions and an annoyed Old Joe shouts in frustration, “I don’t want to talk about time travel SHIT!” It’s a hilariously self-referential yet totally believable exclamation delivered perfectly by Willis, and it drives a solid point home. The point is, Looper is smart enough to know that it’s the time travel itself, not the logistical details of the time travel, that make the idea fun. The focus is set very heavily on story, and character, with the complicated scientific logic/laws of physics aspect of it largely remaining secondary. There have been enough time travel movie elements that have seeped into the public consciousness so much by now that we as an audience can pretty much put the logical pieces together ourselves – Looper is a classy enough movie to take this into consideration, rather than feeling the need to have everything explained to you all the damn time. Plus, there are references to past time travel classics sprinkled throughout the film – the most obvious one to me being Old Joe’s knack of looking at a picture of his murdered wife to keep his mind focused on his goal, similar to how Marty McFly had a picture of his siblings in Back to the Future which he checked frequently to remind us all what the stakes were. It’s a stylistic choice of Johnson’s to have a time travel movie that doesn’t primarily focus on the time travel itself – it’s a story element to the max, but the movie is about these people in this particular situation, and that is why the movie works.
The blood of every great time travel movie is oozing throughout Looper. It’s a movie that neatly trims the best attributes of these time travel classics from their source and blends them together into something that feels fresh and genuinely exciting. It’s one of the best post-Matrix action movies I’ve ever seen, one that infuses similarly heady notions into a smartly paced, well-thought out action thriller. It brings into question the idea of self, the way our choices and decisions affect our own timelines, and the repercussions of drastic actions on the way things turn out. Basically, it’s a smart movie that knows how to get around its own cleverness and provide something truly entertaining. I really love movies like that, and Rian Johnson is the kind of filmmaker who delivers movies like that. I highly recommend Looper to anyone interested in checking out what a truly compelling and expressive movie looks like. After a summer chock full of mindless and pandering drek (Battleship, anyone?) it’s certainly a breath of fresh air to see a movie that both takes its subject matter seriously and respects its audience enough to tell an engaging story while delivering the emotional goods. And I really can’t say enough good things about it because of that. All that’s really left for me to say is….GO SEE IT!
Starring Ed Stoppard, Jeffrey Tambor, Max von Sydow & Leelee Sobieski
Directed by Jamie Bradshaw & Alexsandr Dulerayn
Written by Jamie Bradshaw & Alexsandr Dulerayn
Produced by Jamie Bradshaw & Alexsandr Dulerayn
Cinematography by Rogier Stoffers
Music by Edward Artemyev
Edited by Michael Blackburn
In all honesty, I didn’t even know this movie existed until about 5 days before it was released. It’s actually kind of strange, because it seems to have literally come out of nowhere. I’m usually very good at keeping up with what coming attractions are gonna be popping up within the upcoming months, and I go to movie sites and read about movies all the damn time…so I’m not really sure how or why this movie seemed to slip past my radar. ESPECIALLY since the premise of this movie is not only incredibly topical in this modern day world of corporate economics, but incredibly ridiculous and outlandish as well. It’s not even being advertised extremely well…I mean, I saw a commercial for it on TV which made me aware of its existence, but it’s definitely not in the mass public consciousness regarding films. As of this writing (the day it was released), it doesn’t even have any ratings at all over at rottentomatoes.com. So what the fuck is the deal? What the hell is the story with this movie?
That, my friends, is what I’m here to try and clear up. For when I first saw the TV commercial for the movie Branded, I was not quite sure what to make of it. At first, I thought it was a regular commercial done up in a mock-movie trailer style, and it was about to sell me some stupid product. But as I kept watching I was shocked to see established actors and VERY strange footage, coupled with equally strange dialogue about corporate brands being alive. I kept asking my friends I was with – “IS THIS MOVIE REAL?!” Because ladies and gentlemen, the premise of this film is that a corporate conspiracy is actively participating in some kind of scheme involving living, conscious, largely invisible life-sucking creatures that live in the brands of the biggest, most successful corporations. I was absolutely stunned at the footage – and not necessarily in a good way. I just couldnt’t believe that this is an actual fuckin’ movie!
However, I have to say, I was genuinely intrigued. The footage from the film looked absolutely ridiculous, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. I found the premise, and its thinly-veiled parody on corporate excess, to be flimsy at best, but it was still at least interesting. It’s an original idea at least, and in a market such as today’s, where anything that has been in the public consciousness at some point before can and will be exploited for a quick buck, an original idea is HIGHLY appreciated. So, I made the decision to see this strange, out-of-the-blue film I had never heard of before. And the results are, eh…..a bit underwhelming.
So, before I get a little deeper, I just want to emphasize that I figured this movie would probably be a little bit less than wonderful. To me it was worth the price of admission alone just to see how anyone could even try pull off such a wacky, perplexingly absurd idea in a coherent and cinematically pleasing way. Did they achieve it? Well…….not really. In all honesty, Branded is a pretty forgettable film all around. But it’s not for a lack of trying! There are some genuinely interesting ideas in this movie, and a couple cool moments that I’ve definitely never seen in a movie before. But, unfortunately, the overbearing flaws in the script and the on-again/off-again performances from all of the actors involved makes Branded a pretty trite and confused experience. Not confusing, in that it’s hard to follow what’s going on, but confused in that the movie just doesn’t seem to know how to stick all its contorted notions together and ends up seeming boneheaded because of it. It’s a prime example of a movie simply overstating its case to a point of unfortunate detriment.
So this trippy-ass flick starts out in Russia in the early 1980’s. A little kid is lying on his back looking up at the night sky, and for a moment he seems to catch a glimpse of a moving cow head constellation in the night sky when his number is called for….something. Maybe I’m a little behind in my Russia history lessons, so I’m gonna give this scene the benefit of the doubt, but for some reason there’s a whole bunch of people standing in line for something and somebody calling out numbers. I’m sure there’s some factual reason for this, but I don’t know what it is and the movie just doesn’t clarify it for us in the slightest. The boy hears his number, and comes running up the line to claim…something…when suddenly, HE GETS STRUCK BY FRIGGIN’ LIGHTNING!!!! But, it seems in Moscow in the early 1980’s people get struck by lightning with relatively abundant frequency since NOBODY even flinches or acts surprised when the kid gets struck down! A few people do crowd around, and one woman goes over to check on the boy, who is frazzled but otherwise unharmed. She asks the boy if he’s alright, and when he replies she tells him that he is “going to have a very strange life.” BOY, YOU SAID IT LADY! That’s when the title of the film pops up and I guess our story is underway.
Soooo, this opening scene already has problems out the ass. Why are all these people waiting in line, and why are numbers being called off for something? Like I said, I’m sure there’s some legitimate reason, but the fact is it’s never made clear why. It doesn’t really matter cuz it doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of the plot whatsoever, but I still don’t like it when events aren’t explained to us – especially when it’s at the beginning of a film, and the main character is actively participating in said events. The little boy is excited and obviously intent on getting whatever his number has been called for, so it DOES have bearing on the scene…anyway, he inexplicably gets struck by lightning, and seriously, NO ONE REACTS! It’s pretty mind-boggling, actually…again, this is nitpicky territory, but c’mon, everything that happens in the frame is important when you’re making a movie. If you don’t have people react to something as intense as witnessing someone getting struck by lightning, it just seems jarring and unrealistic! This is ESPECIALLY bad at the very beginning of a movie, when everything is being set up and the audience is getting a feel for what the rest of the movie’s gonna be like.
But it seems that weird, unemotional and unresponsive people really is what the movie’s about, so I guess it makes a little sense in that regard. Seriously, the characters in this movie are appallingly bland, and their reactions and choices throughout the movie are downright befuddling! I’ll get into it more in a little bit, but watching the normally great Max von Sydow cliché his way through an establishing board meeting scene and the tepid responses from other people in it really sets an awkward tone for the movie. Max von Sydow plays a sort of corporate head honcho, this dude who is calling all the shots of the plot. Pretty much instantly we’re told what the big plan is: to make sales better for fast food companies, the powers that be are going to orchestrate the public re-acceptance of being fat. That’s right, the plot of the first half of this movie is making the public think that being fat is cool, so that everyone will go to fast food chains more and fill their guts up. How will they accomplish this, you ask? Through incredibly contrived and conspiratorial actions, that’s how! This is where our protagonist comes into play: Misha Galkin, portrayed by Ed Stoppard, is that lightning-struck little boy all grown up and now a very talented marketing executive. Misha has just won a high-profile marketing award, which is jointly accepted by his boss Bob Gibbons (portrayed surprisingly hollowly by Jeffrey Tambor…I don’t really blame him though, his whole character is pretty damn hollow), and because of this, he lands a great gig producing a new reality show in the style of Extreme Makeover. Along for the ride on this show is Abby, the bangin’ American neice of Bob Gibbons played by Leelee Sobieski. Abby and Misha strike up a close friendship which quickly grows into a full-blown relationship, and Misha’s boss Bob ain’t too happy about it. In one of the film’s funnier yet highly inexplicable scenes, Misha and Abby are gettin’ down and dirty in the middle of stagnant traffic. We cut to the interior of Bob’s car, also stuck in traffic, as he makes a phone call to Misha. Too busy with sex to answer, Misha ignores the call, and then Bob feels the need to roll down his window to find….you guessed it!…Misha and Abby having sex in the very car next to him. Hilarity then ensues, and it is a pretty humorous scene, but it’s one of the many moments in the film that just feels a bit lazy and a little rushed. Seriously, he’s sitting in the car next to them? Don’t get me wrong, while it’s a perfectly plausible scenario, I just find it to be a little convenient and squeezed in…like they needed Tambor’s character to find out what was going on, so they conjured up this entirely circumstantial traffic encounter. It doesn’t feel clever to me, it just feels a bit…lazy.
Anyway, on to conspiracies and whatnot. So the idea of this Extreme Makeover-ish show is to take a fat person and surgically “fix” them to become a skinny person. Misha and his team go through the process of picking the perfect, most loveable fatty woman to play guinea pig for the entertainment of millions. How does this play into Max von Sydow’s brilliant scheme of convincing everyone to become fatasses? Reverse psychology, my friends – the show becomes an instant hit, and all of Moscow loves the fat woman (whose name I can’t recall) who will soon be lipo’d. But, the day of her surgery comes, and after it’s complete, Newly-Skinny Woman doesn’t wake up – she’s in a coma. The public, outraged by this turn of events, turns on the network executives who put her in her unfortunate position, demanding that those responsible be brought to justice…leading to the arrests of both Misha and Abby.
You noticing anything strange about plot here? Mainly, how it’s all completely circumstantial and blatantly manufactured to get to the next plot point? Now seriously, I know the whole point of this movie is to emphasize the effect marketing and advertising has on public consciousness, but do they really want us to suspend disbelief enough to accept that people in the public would be this stupid? I know that’s kind of an iffy question, since this shit does happen in real life, but C’MON! Everything is hinged on the public accepting this shitty reality show that Misha is the producer of – what if nobody fuckin’ liked it? And then people get morally outraged when the star goes into a coma – something that is ostensibly beyond anyone’s real control? It’s kind of ridiculous to think that the public would be so outraged and willing to say things like “what was wrong with her in the first place?” (something actually said in the movie) when they were the very ones supporting her body-altering surgeries by loving the show so damn much. That’s the one thing that really bugs me about this movie – the public are portrayed as complete morons, incapable of one critical thought of any kind. Now, again, I know some of you reading this may find that this idea hits pretty close to home in the world, but the way this movie portrays people makes it feel like some cold, barely relatable universe. Public opinion is swayed on a whim simply to benefit the story – things keep happening, and the public just goes along with it, because if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any damn plot. This isn’t considered to be great writing – things move along simply to serve the plot, rather than serving the characters.
And wow, the CHARACTERS – here’s another sore point in the movie. This is purely a plot-driven movie, not a character-driven one. Sometimes, when done correctly, this is a good thing, but this movie tries to make us feel like it’s a movie about people when really it’s a movie about ideas with a plot there to tie them all together. Every character in this movie is pretty flat and one-dimensional, simply there to do their part in the story rather than being fleshed out as real-feeling human beings. It’s definitely a big detracting factor in a film that is hypothetically about real-world scenarios and situations…or at least, trying to comment on real world scenarios and situations. You see, it’s much easier and effective to get these anti-corporate ideals across when the people being affected by what’s going on feel like real people, but we’re forced to endure this sort of distant-feeling universe full of raving idiots. Seriously, the only thing more unbelievable than this convoluted scheme is the fact that it actually works.
So Misha is released from jail because it’s determined by the media that being induced into a coma has nothing to do with the people who put on the show (no fuckin’ shit) and he confronts Bob in his office. Bob tells him that the only reason he’s out of prison is because it was the only way he could get his niece to leave peacefully. Then for some reason they go to a bar or something and have drinks, and Misha tells Bob he’s out of the ad game. Then Bob has a heart attack or some kind of shit, and drops dead on the ground. Ummm…okay? Now that that character has been effectively written out of the story we can focus on Misha, who evacuates the increasingly fat-obsessed populace of Moscow to be a cow herder in the countryside (no, really). Abby tracks him down and tries to get him to come back, but he’s not having any of it, convinced his “talent for marketing” is nothing but evil. She leaves, but not before Misha has a dream-within-a-dream which tells him to carry out some act we slowly begin to see. This would probably be a good time to mention the Narrator, who is voiced by some robotic-sounding woman and who tells us all kinds of information as we see it happening onscreen. Seriously, there’s nothing I hate more in a movie than a useless narrator, and this one definitely qualifies. Why don’t you just TELL us the entire movie while it’s happening? Yeah, that’ll make us care more about this illogical plot.
So Misha builds this sacrificial pyre and somehow turns a cow red through voodoo magic or something, then brutally murders it with an axe before setting the entire pyre on fire and mixing the ashes in a jug of water to pour upon his naked body. I shit you not, this is what he actually does in the movie. Then he passes out in the field, and suddenly he wakes up in the back of Abby’s car…apparently, she “couldn’t leave him out there”, so she went and found his naked body in a field, picked him up and drove him back to Moscow so the plot could move forward. BUT! Something is not right upon this return to Moscow…apart from the fact that everybody is fat and every advertisement exclusively features fat people, Misha can now see hideous and amorphous creatures attached to everybody. What’s more, these strange creatures sit atop the headquarters of massive corporations, and seem to live off the life energy that people give by purchasing fast food and other manufactured goods.
So NOW, about an hour into this thing, we’ve finally arrived at the selling point for the whole flick – brands are actually monsters themselves, and are involved in some kind of strange symbiotic relationship with all of mankind. And who’s the only one who can do anything about it?!…well it’s Misha, because he’s apparently the only one who can see them. Indeed, no one else can see or hear these creatures who are living off of them. Misha tries to tell Abby, but she of course doesn’t believe him. She’s also busy introducing Misha to his…SON?! Yeah so apparently Misha has a son that’s never met named Robert, and he’s a spoiled little fat kid with no manners. Robert tells his newfound daddy that he doesn’t like him in what may be one of the most rushed and awkward-feeling father-son meetings in cinematic history. They kind of just look at each other, acknowledge their existences, and then get on with things. This movie’s TOO BUSY for things like character development or meaningful connections!
So Misha tries to live life normally, pretending that these creatures don’t exist, but he finds it impossible. He repeatedly tries to tell Abby that the creatures are real and they’re part of some huge conspiracy to make people fat and stuff, but she’s not really feeling it. She asks him what he’s gonna do about it, and after a very awkward scene that ends with Misha pushing Abby over in the street because he was trying to shoo a creature attached to her, she takes Little Boy Plot Point and ditches Misha. That’s pretty cold, lady. So it’s at this point that Misha joins forces with an Asian health food company and begins to enact a conspiracy of his own to do away with these evil companies and their literally life-sucking forces.
I’m not gonna ruin how it ends, but at this point you’ve already decided if this movie’s for you, I think. Frankly, this flick is a big damn mess. While the plot does chug along at a relatively brisk pace, we’re constantly being thrust ahead into the next plot point to further the action. There’s very little explanation for things, and we’re expected to take a lot of stuff for granted as the plot keeps throwing ideas at us. It’s kind of like The Dark Knight Rises if everything sucked a whole lot more. And what’s more, the characters’ choices and actions are pretty mind-boggling at some points. This is mainly because the characters aren’t there to serve any real purpose, they exist to further the ideas the plot is trying to convey. And while there are certainly many cool ideas in this movie, the script doesn’t do a very good job of keeping them all together.
All right, so I’m going to talk about the only big selling point this movie has, and that’s the brand-name hidden monsters floating around everywhere. Quite frankly, apart from being a visual metaphor and a pretty cool looking special effect, I have no idea what purpose they serve in the story. It’s established that these monsters are living off the energy provided by people consuming the goods these companies sell, but literally the only person we’re shown to even be aware of it is Misha! It’s never mentioned or even remotely addressed what role the creatures play in the plans of the corporations – or if the corporations are even aware of their existence. We never learn WHERE they came from, WHY they’re doing this, or WHO even benefits from their existence. So this logically could mean that Misha is just hallucinating, or making it all up in his head, right? Well, I have a tough time buying that because there seems to be this whole divine intervention theme going on throughout the entire movie – Misha is struck by lightning at the very beginning of the movie. He has a dream that tells him to sacrifice a red cow, and after said ritual, he’s able to see these terrible creatures. And THEN there’s a scene Misha even looks up the “Red Cow Ritual” online, where he finds all kinds of information about this seemingly ancient ritual which cleanses the spirit of the Sin of the Golden Calf, meaning that the person carrying out the ritual can see things other people cannot. Judging by the scene alone there’s all kinds of information documenting this ritual, which means that other people on the planet should be aware of these monsters in SOME form, right? Well, maybe – again, Misha is the only one who is shown to know of the monsters in any way. So, what purpose do the monsters serve in the grand scheme of everything? WHY are they even there?!?!
I’m pointing this out because this whole idea of brands being alive – which is a genuinely interesting idea that separates this movie from any other and is the primary focus of the ad campaign – is a pretty inconsequential addition to the film overall. The big conspirators, the corporations behind all the bad shit in the movie…they don’t even seem to be AWARE of these creatures’ existences! So that begs the question, WHERE did these monsters COME from?! What came first, the monster or the corporation? Now, I’ll tell you what I expected going into the movie – I expected Max von Sydow to be the top conspirator dude running everything (which he was) and that at the end of the movie Misha, after working his way up the ranks, would finally confront him and learn the truth about these unusual beasts. Instead, von Sydow’s character inexplicably disappears from the film about 20 minutes before it ends in one of the strangest scenes I’ve seen in a long time and we’re left to just ponder what the hell the monsters are doing there. Are they real? Are they a hallucination? Quite frankly, I don’t think the filmmakers even thought about it that much. I don’t think it’s supposed to be left open-ended for audience interpretation or whatever, I just think that shit wasn’t properly explained. There are a couple redeeming factors here and there that tie the creatures to the plot a bit more substantially – at one point, Misha is able to create a new monster that flies out and kills another corporation monster, specifically of a chain called “The Burger”. This drives the stocks of “The Burger” down and eventually they go bankrupt. So…I guess if you kill the monster, that frees people from their desire to consume at its corporation, therefore leading to shitty sales and bankruptcy? Or maybe the monsters themselves are linked to the stocks somehow…? You see, things just happen in this movie but they’re never properly explained…how the fuck are we supposed to know what purpose these creatures serve if nobody ever tells us?
And hey, speaking of the actual brands in the movie, let’s talk about that shit for a second. One important thing to note is that no real-world companies have lent their names to this flick…and I really don’t blame them in the slightest. I mean, it’s a movie about giant corporate monsters sucking the life force out of people’s skulls, I really don’t think any company would want to be associated with that. So because of this hangup, the filmmakers are forced to come up with hilariously sub-par impersonations of name brands we know and love – “Apple” becomes “Yepple”, every burger joint ever gets condensed into “The Burger” (gee, what a creative name), there’s “Soda Soda” which is obviously modeled after Coca-Cola…I’m gonna stop here because these replacement names are starting to hurt my brain. You get the idea anyway, there ain’t any real name brands in the picture, aside from one scene where Misha talks on the phone to some guy about Paramount not liking a commercial they’ve made…I’m pretty sure that’s the only real company mentioned in the entire movie, and only at one fleeting moment. I don’t know about you, but I think it kind of takes away from the biting satire the filmmakers are obviously striving for when you replace all the names you wanted to use with cheap, barely-creative imitation brands. What’s more, it distances the events of the film from our universe even more, making everything seem like some make-believe version of Earth when it’s supposed to be directly commenting on stuff happening in the real world. I know it’s all supposed to be a metaphor or whatever, but I just feel like that’s an excuse for not being able to get real-life name brands to back your obviously anti-corporate film, and it alienates the already disconnected audience that much more.
Branded is a confused movie – one that wants to slap you in the face with a political message while at the same time trying to masquerade as an entertaining sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, neither of these goals really work effectively. The fact is, we get the whole anti-corporation thing pretty much from the get-go. We’re instantly shown that the corporations are conspiring against the public, making them instantly bad to us, and we’re shown the effects they have on the community as a whole. We just keep being fed things we’re already aware of. And THEN an hour into the movie they decide to kick in this half-assed sci-fi/horror angle with the corporation creatures to visually show what these corporations do, but they serve no real purpose. The nature of their existence is never fully explained, their effect on the public is only perceived by one person, and their influence on the plot as a whole is trivial at best. It’s really not a good thing when the whole selling point of your movie has no real influence on its story other than an elaborate visual metaphor. The characters are cardboard, and the actors try their best to fill their roles with some kind of depth, but the script they’re forced to recite keeps pulling the rug out from under them. It’s a damn shame because I feel like this movie could have been SO much more – there’s a lot of fertile ground here idea-wise, and maybe in the hands of more competent filmmakers it would have been something more memorable. The movie is a joint Russian/American production, and has two directors and writers…perhaps this is a reason why the movie feels disjointed and lacking a solid core. Directors duos only work when a vision is agreed upon and shared, and usually when the directors are related. This movie feels like the ideas of a bunch of people were thrown in and strung together by some kind of meandering corporate plot. It just don’t work, people.
So final thoughts? Branded is a pretty forgettable film, sorry to say. It has a lot of visual imagination, which earns it some points, and I can definitely say that there’s never been a movie like it before…which is both a good and a bad thing. Despite all the bad things I’ve said about it, I’d still recommend it to someone looking for something visually stimulating and generally original…just don’t make the same mistake I made of shelling out a full ticket price at the theater. I’d say wait until it’s on Netflix or something before checking this one out. It’s a simple-minded movie trying to masquerade as an intelligent satire with a sci-fi edge, but it’s so disjointed and poorly thought out that it just comes across as incompetent. The movie swiftly changes in tone halfway through from a corporate thriller to a special-effects laden sci-fi satire that doesn’t really gel properly. But hey, I certainly appreciate at least the effort to produce an original idea. I just hope its failure in execution doesn’t scare investors away from other original ideas in the future….or maybe it’s all a conspiracy to sell the public more thoughtless remakes and rehashes!!! OMG I FIGURED IT OUT!
Greetings, my dear readers/newcomers/awesome people reading my website! Instead of the usual review fare, I’m going to take this opportunity to tell y’all about a little project I’ve been cooking up for the past few months: a group of friends and I are trying to get a really cool non-profit independent movie theater in our hometown of Tucson, Arizona to screen the amazing fan-made film The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, and WE NEED YOUR HELP!
The Loft Cinema is one of the finest independent cinema establishments in the Southwestern United States. They pride themselves in screening the latest, oldest, and coolest indepedent movies you’ve ever heard of (and plenty you’ve never heard of), plus plenty of legendary cult classics to boot. I can safely say they are one of the few establishments in the area that recognize and support the essence of true filmmaking, and all of the things that go with it. They routinely get directors to come and present their films to their audiences, partake in quick-filmmaking competitions, and have fan service events like Grease singalongs and Rocky Horror Picture Show fests. Basically, The Loft is the coolest place in the world!
Now, if you’ve read my lengthy and very complimentary review of The Recobbled Cut (here’s the link if you haven’t…what are ya waiting for?!:
), you know how awesome and important that movie is. Truly, The Loft is the prime screening ground for a movie such as The Recobbled Cut. The problem is, when I went to them myself and suggested the idea of playing The Recobbled Cut, an understandable hangup was presented: I was told that while they were genuinely interested in the movie and were open to the idea of screening it, in the past they generally had trouble drawing audiences to a screening of a movie which is readily available on the internet for free. This feedback was good, but slightly disappointing – it seems they weren’t as open to playing it if there wasn’t an obvious demand for its occurrence.
BUT WE CAN CHANGE THAT!!!!!
The purpose of this petition is to convince the owners of The Loft that there IS an audience for this movie, and that they DO believe it is worth seeing in a movie theater, even if only for one night. I genuinely believe that the The Loft wants to screen this movie, they just don’t know it yet. We have to convince them! I really can’t think of a more perfect movie for a theater of The Loft’s stature to present: it’s a great work of lost cinematic art, created by a true master of his craft, presented in an unfinished form to give us a glimpse at the greatness that could have been. I believe that this makes it just ripe for the screening of an esteemed art house such as The Loft! Plus, The Loft has a very devoted and established membership base, meaning that there are a BUNCH of people who go see movies at The Loft because that’s just what they do. If it’s playing at The Loft, they’ll see it.
I believe that with the proper promotion and word-spreading, the theater would be absolutely packed with people on whatever night The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut is screened. It’s simply WORTH the effort and whatever price might be paid to see this movie on the big screen. The movie IS that good, and it deserves to be played on a giant screen for all those who would love to witness its glory. That’s what the movie was intended for in first place! And you CAN’T argue that seeing something on a small computer screen is nearly as cool as seeing something on a giant movie theater screen (the biggest in the Southwest!) where it was MEANT to be seen. It’s the perfect opportunity for this movie to be seen THE RIGHT WAY.
So please, if you’re at all interested in animated films and the history of cinema, I URGE you to sign our petition, even if you don’t live anywhere near Tucson, Arizona! The point of getting this movie screened is to spread awareness of its legacy and place in cinema history, and to prove that great works of art DO find their audience, even if they are butchered and beaten beyond the point of recognition into shameful commodities…the art will still live on, and people will appreciate it! I really just want to bring justice to this movie’s gumption, to show it to a world that just might be glad they took the time to sit down and watch it. It’s a great movie, and a great cause, so please, HELP US GET THIS MOVIE ON THE BIG SCREEN!
Here’s the link to sign the petition online:
Go there and sign away my brothers and sisters, and do your part to help spread great filmmaking to everybody everywhere! Thank you so much for your time, and please, enjoy your movies.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Ann Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Michael Cain, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, & Morgan Freeman
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Johnathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
Produced by Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan & Charles Roven
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Music by Hans Zimmer
Edited by Lee Smith
(This is a SPOILER ALERT. It’s alerting you to SPOILERS, so be cautious as you read into this review if you don’t want anything….spoiled. If you ain’t afraid of no spoilers, READ ON and ENJOY!)
Movie trilogies can be tricky. It’s often quite a feat to maintain the same level of quality and presentation throughout three separate films which, when combined, create a singular ongoing story. Ever since the original Star Wars trilogy left a mark on the popular consciousness all those years ago, movie trilogies have been popping up left and right – we got the Back to the Future trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Godfather trilogy, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Evil Dead, Jurassic Park, Men in Black, and Spider-Man trilogies…hell, even the Toy Story movies became quite an epic trilogy. And, because of the difficulty in maintaining a giant story throughout three films, these movie trilogies have often been executed with varying levels of success. It’s just really challenging to keep a strict eye on the overall story being told when it’s stretched out over three full-length movies! It takes a very focused filmmaker or group of filmmakers with a solid vision to keep a level-headed hold on things, without letting too many excess details getting in the way of the overall goal. This is especially hard when you get to the final installment of a franchise because wrapping everything up with a nice little bow is often a daunting task…especially when all of the details won’t fit perfectly inside the box. The Spider-Man trilogy had this problem, The Matrix trilogy definitely had this problem, and The Godfather Part III is almost begrudgingly accepted as part of that epic film franchise. Even the great Return of the Jedi is generally viewed as the weakest chapter in the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s just hard to do a final, conclusive third installment that provides the appropriate sense of closure so desperately needed. Now, what I would REALLY like to say is that the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, gets all of these factors right and is a successful conclusion to what has been one of the best film franchises in recent memory…but unfortunately, my friends, I just don’t find that to be entirely the case.
Let me just say this: I REALLY wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. I absolutely love Nolan’s previous forays into the Batman universe, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. I find them to be intelligently made, greatly entertaining and thematically sound exercises in film escapism, and they paint a truly defining portrait of the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman. There are definitely flaws in both of those movies, but on the whole, they’re genuinely great works of cinematic art. They brought the superhero movie out of childish abandon and re-established Batman for a new generation, grounding his character in reality and achieving a new level of emotional complexity that no superhero movie had ever accomplished before. Christopher Nolan is a very competent director, even if his projects can – at times – be overly complicated or ridden with trivial details. I’ve been a fan of his stuff ever since I saw Memento, which is still one of my favorite films of all time. And after Inception, a movie I absolutely loved, I was under the impression that Nolan could do no real wrong. Well….I may have spoken a bit too soon. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a terrible film, but unfortunately, it isn’t a very monumental or effective one either. It’s kind of just….okay. It certainly isn’t a strong note to end this previously triumphant Batman trilogy on, and in all honesty, its grandiose epicness is actually kind of a detracting factor in its overall scheme. There’s just too many new characters flying around, too many subplots and storylines intersecting and evolving, and too many loose ends desperately in need of being tied up that it actually begins to work against the fluidity of the movie. Plus, there are some genuinely boneheaded decisions being made here and there, and they feel blatantly out of place in this otherwise well-written film series. The movie just feels like it’s trying oh-so hard to fit in all this excess story into a neat little package and to get quickly to the next scene, so much so that none of the individual scenes have any time to breathe – we’re just constantly being thrust into the next event without any time to consider what has just happened.
So where to begin? Well, I suppose we should begin at the beginning – The Dark Knight Rises picks up 8 years after the events of The Dark Knight have transpired. Gotham City is experiencing an unprecedented era of peace and tranquility, thanks in part to a bill called the Dent Act which was passed shortly after Harvey Dent’s death in the last film. The city also dignifies Dent with a Harvey Dent Day, which takes place on the anniversary of his death – clearly, the city is still gaga over Harvey Dent, and is completely unaware of the fact that he became a depraved, cold-blooded murderer named Two-Face who tried to kill Commissioner Gordon’s entire family shortly before his demise. Blame for Dent’s death is still placed on the Batman, who hasn’t been seen since the first “Harvey Dent Day” 8 years ago. Coincidentally, Bruce Wayne hasn’t left his mansion in that time either. Right off the bat, this peaceful era in Gotham’s history makes for a pretty boring first act of the film – nothing is really happening. At the beginning of The Dark Knight, we’re instantly drawn into a tense, visually stimulating action sequence that establishes the tone and intensity of the movie in a way that never lets up throughout its entire running time. At the beginning of Rises, we just get….a bunch of people indulging in upper-class pleasantries and talking about how peaceful everything is. Yeah, lots of excitement there.
Now, to be fair, the movie does begin with a pretty cool looking action sequence aboard an airplane which introduces us to Bane, portrayed with calm and collected brutality by Tom Hardy. But, as visually interesting as this sequence is, it doesn’t really give us a ton of information, or any bearing on who (or what) Bane is or what he’s doing on this plane. I mean, he’s there to kidnap this scientist guy or something, but I don’t know why this whole plane exercise was even necessary. It’s said at the beginning of the scene that Bane and two other companions were apprehended while trying to capture the scientist (named Dr. Pavel), but it was Bane’s plan to be captured. …Why? Because he wanted to show everyone how cool he is? Why couldn’t he just capture Dr. Pavel before, without even dealing with being picked up by the CIA and going through this whole convoluted air-hijacking plot? Bane does say he wanted to find out what Pavel told them, but it’s perfectly clear these guys don’t know jack shit about Bane or his plan, and Pavel quickly shouts he told them nothing, therefore rendering the point of this plan irrelevant. I guess he knows now! Couldn’t he have just intimidated that information out of Pavel after capturing him? I dunno, it just felt flimsy to me. Everything happens extremely quickly, and it’s shot with this sort of rushed feeling that we don’t really have a good established feel for what’s happening. There’s even this weird part where they take blood from Dr. Pavel and put it into the body of some corpse in a bodybag, as the plane they’re in is being destroyed and tethered by another plane. I guess the point of this was to make it look like Pavel died in the plane crash, but honestly, I didn’t even pick up on that while I was watching the movie. It isn’t explained in any way, and honestly, it just left me feeling confused. I guess it’s a smart move, but wouldn’t the CIA have been able to tell it wasn’t Pavel by his face? Or maybe the body would get so horribly mangled in the destruction of the plane after they drop it that it would be indeterminable anyway? And furthermore, why should Bane and company care if they know Pavel is dead or not? Bane kidnapped him, and it’s doubtful the CIA would be able to locate him from that point on. I just didn’t really see the point of the whole blood transfusion thing – or the plane hijacking, for that matter – and it already left me with an uncomfortable, disoriented feeling just 5 minutes into the movie.
Anyway, back to the slow, boring first act. Right away it’s established that not much is going on – the characters even talk about it with semi-awkward expository dialogue. Bruce Wayne is hosting a Harvey Dent Day party at his mansion, but isn’t showing his face at it. Commissioner Gordon begins to give a speech, where he intends to tell everyone the truth about Harvey Dent, but decides not to for some reason, and awkwardly tells everyone that they’re “not ready for the truth yet.” Um…that’s kind of a weird thing to tell a large group of people gathered to celebrate someone’s life and death, especially since it implies they’re being lied to about something regarding that very person. But, of course, nobody finds this strange at all and goes about their regular business. It might just be me, but if somebody pulls out a pre-written speech and then hastily puts it away while telling us we’re not ready to hear the truth about it, I might just get a little suspicious. But anyway, soon it’s shown that one of the servers working Wayne’s party is not who she appears to be as she sneaks into Bruce Wayne’s private quarters and begins snooping around. Wayne confronts her, and it’s revealed he’s suffered some type of injury that limits him to the use of a cane. It becomes apparent that this mysterious woman is Selina Kyle, aka “The Cat”, a burglar who’s been quite popular in the news lately. She’s there to steal Bruce Wayne’s mother’s pearl necklace, as well as his fingerprints for an unknown client. After some witty back-and-forth, Selina kicks Wayne’s cane out from under him and he collapses, allowing her to escape. At the same time, she “kidnaps” a somewhat willing United States congressman, leading to a city-wide manhut. One thing I definitely like about the movie is Ann Hathaway’s portrayal as Catwoman – although she’s not referred to as Catwoman at any point in the film, which is pretty interesting. At first I was a little iffy about Nolan’s decision to cast her in the role, which I was pretty much used to seeing fulfilled by blonde bombshell actresses (or, in worst-case scenarios, Halle Berry. But we won’t talk about that). But I promptly put my foot in my mouth once I saw the sexy sassiness Hathaway brings to the role. She nails it perfectly, giving Seling Kyle a mixture of devil-may-care sassiness as well as a brutal killer instinct. She’s probably the strongest new character in a film that has a vast overabundance of new characters.
So Bruce Wayne is crippled and out of the superhero game, even though we’re never told how or why he injured his leg in the first place. I guess in the long run it doesn’t really matter, but honestly, I would have really liked to know how a dude like Bruce Wayne, with all his physical gusto, got reduced to the status of cane-wielding recluse. This lack of information sets up an unfortunate precedent for the movie: it doesn’t really establish things very well. The absence of a proper grounding plagues the entirety of the film throughout its nearly three-hour running time, and eventually it’s nearly impossible to ignore the numbing sensation going on in your seat. Now honestly, I have a feeling if I go incredibly in-depth on this one I’ll be sitting here typing for years and never get this review finished, so I’m going to go a bit easier from here on out, simply for time and sanity’s sake. But almost everything in this movie just feels a little…off to me. There are so many little factors, so many little details that just feel unnatural or ill-advised that it starts to bring the movie down for me. Things like overly expository dialogue, and strange editing in regards to time and where characters are. At one point, we’re jumping back and forth between two events that seem to be happening at the same time, but when Batman finishes saving people in scene A, he immediately appears in scene B to save the guy in danger there too! Does Batman have a transportation device I’m not aware of? Is scene B happening at a later time? What the hell is going on? You see, there’s just a bunch of weird and confusing stuff like that happening that really shouldn’t be in a high-profile film of this magnitude.
Let me just state this again: this is not, by any means, an atrocious film. There’s definitely exciting action sequences, some great character development for the characters that actually matter (and, unfortunately, some develophment for ones that really don’t), great performances from most of the people involved, and competent direction from Nolan himself. I liked that the story, while jumping all over the place and never really focusing solely on one detail, compellingly displays an entire society falling apart at the seams. It represents a low point for many of our established characters, and raises the stakes to a near apocalyptic level fitting for an epic conclusion such as this. At the very least, it gave a substantial role for Bruce Wayne to play. After the Joker sort of stole the show from Batman in The Dark Knight, it can truly be said that Rises is actually a movie about Bruce Wayne/Batman, and his relationship with the world. We see him go through a lot of shit in this movie, and watch a pretty harrowing character arc unfold. Ironically, the highest point in the movie is also the lowest point in the movie, when Wayne is imprisoned by Bane in a deep, cavernous prison which is readily escapable if you are physically adept enough to scale a gigantic wall and climb to freedom. After a very tense and admittedly one-sided fight with Bane, Batman suffers a back-breaking loss and is tossed helplessly into this horrible prison. Bane punishes Bruce Wayne by making him see the downfall of Gotham society through a TV set that is somehow installed in an ancient prison made entirely of stone. I guess Bane had a really long extension cord? I know this is getting into nitpicking territory, but seriously, how the fuck did Bane install a TV set in that prison for Bruce Wayne to watch? Little details like this just made Rises feel illogical and empty-headed, when it’s trying oh-so hard to tell a deep, detailed story. Oh, and then Bruce Wayne receives a hallucinatory vision of Ra’s Al Ghul, portrayed once again by Liam Neeson in a nice cameo. In this hallucination – taking place entirely in Wayne’s mind – he receives some actual information that motivates Wayne to get his ass in gear and get the fuck out of that prison cell. Now, this sort of strikes me as odd, because…how can somebody receive useful information, information that is both beneficial to the character and to the audience from a damn hallucination? Isn’t that, like…a contradiction? Now, I understand that maybe Wayne had the mental fortitude to figure out the information relayed to him through Ra’s al-Ghost by himself, and the whole scene might be some sort of visual metaphor of Wayne’s brain piecing it all together. But, even if that’s true, it still shows that Bruce Wayne got his mojo back (so to speak) from a goddamn mirage, something which can usually be defined as an “unreliable source” to say the least. I just think it sort of reveals clumsy writing when the scribes feel it necessary to have a drastic character turn that sets everything up for the remainder of the movie hinged on a prison-psychosis hallucination.
Seriously, there’s suspect stuff like this happening all over the place in the movie. I’m almost perplexed by the fact that a movie this huge, this grandiose and epic, so obviously crafted with attention to eye-popping cinematic detail by competent filmmakers could have so many logical fallacies and head-scratching “What?” moments. But I guess when you’re telling a needlessly intricate, multi-faceted story with an overload of disposable and necessary characters doing all kinds of crazy shit, it’s easy to overlook the little details. And the things that bother me about this movie really are little things in the overall view – but there’s enough of them to drag the movie down from being truly entertaining to me. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene where a big, nuclear bomb that could decimate the entire city and has been established as drastically unstable is being frantically driven throug the streets in a big truck, with Batman in hot pursuit in his cool flying contraption. At one point, Batman starts shooting missles at this truck in an effort to stop it. The entire time, I was just thinking to myself – “WHY ARE YOU SHOOTING MISSLES AT A TRUCK CARRYING AN UNSTABLE NUCLEAR BOMB?!?!” I couldn’t help but think that if Batman happened to hit the right point in that truck and hit the bomb, he would be directly responsible for the destruction of the entire city he’s trying to protect. It just felt so…DUMB! And then the truck stops extremely abruptly by falling from one level of road to the one below, which kills the driver (whom I won’t reveal) but somehow doesn’t kill Commisser Gordon, who was standing unrestrained in the back of the truck with the nuclear bomb in question. I think he definitely would have been tossed around in a grisly, neck-breaking fashion when the truck violently crashed to the city street below. And THEN, when Batman makes the decision to tow the bomb out to the ocean where it can safely detonate, he drags it on the ground a bit, and knocks it into a building or two by mistake. Why is that shit in the movie?! I mean, this is a highly unstable and ready-to-blow nuclear weapon – shouldn’t we be treating it with the utmost care and caution? I seriously want to tear my hair out thinking about it – the whole sequence was just so unbearably dumb that I was taken right out of the movie and questioning the logic of everyone who created that scene. But, in a way, that just applies to the whole movie – there’s a variety of “what the fuck were they thinking” moments that truly effect this otherwise grandly entertaining movie as a whole. And I’m sorry, I REALLY can’t look past them!
At the end of the day, The Dark Knight Rises is a big, loud, clunky, sporadically entertaining action film that focuses a bit too much on spectacle rather than telling a cohesive story. It’s as if Christopher Nolan, in his effort to construct an epic, emotionally satisfying, catyclysmic finale to his highly popular Batman films, let the truly important filmmaking details slip away from him in the process. What we really need is a solid, strongly grounded story – I don’t want to say “easier to follow”, because that implies that the film is overly complex or beyond understanding – but certainly something less muddled, and a bit more streamlined. This is a Batman film for chrissakes, not The Odyssey. To illustrate my point, let’s just take a quick look at Nolan’s last film, Inception. While Inception is usually perceived as a sort of convoluted and complex film, it’s actually not that hard to follow the story if you just pay attention to what is happening. Sure, there’s all kinds of dream-hopping and fast-paced action happening, but for the most part the story keeps things pretty straightforward. Everything is laid out for the audience, and we’re given enough information to keep up with the crazy, mindblowing adventures that the cast embark on. What’s more, Inception follows a streamlined and legible plot, one that sticks with the protagonist and follows his story through to its conclusion. The same can’t be said for The Dark Knight Rises, with its criss-crossing plots and subplots, its barrage of characters to keep track of, its jarring time jumps and murky editing. The reason why Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight work so well is because those movies tell grounded, logically sound stories that take us from one place to the next, while allowing scenes to breathe and find identities of their own. The idea of confusion or disorienting experiences even plays into Inception‘s conceit, because the characters are actually doing things that would generate such confusion – they’re infiltrating different levels of consciousness, impersonating other dream characters, going into other people’s minds, and so on. The intricacy employed by Inception actually works to its benefit, because it inherently imbues the film with a sort of otherworldly, dreamlike feel that compliments the subject matter appropriately. The Dark Knight Rises is essentially a movie about the good guy trying to stop the bad guy – it simply doesn’t need the same level of confounding plot twists and turns. (For the record, I know there’s deeper things going on in Rises than just Batman punching Bane in the face; the themes are mature, developed and relevant to the story. What I’m saying is, this is a goddamn Batman movie. It doesn’t need to be ridiculously complex.)
Now truthfully, I’m not against shaking things up a bit and doing an epic tale that covers all kinds of ground, jumping from one character to the next – but that’s a bit harder to do competently without letting a bunch of extraneous details fall to the wayside. There’s all kinds of shit in this movie I haven’t even mentioned yet – Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a pretty decent performance as Blake, a Batman-friendly cop who somehow manages to figure out who Batman really is. Well…I guess if you really think about it it’s not that hard to decipher. But in a universe where no one has ever really been able to piece together who Batman really is, it’s just kind of odd to have this one character just figure it out all on his own…pretty much through guesswork. At least the little shit who figured out Batman’s real identity in The Dark Knight actually had some solid evidence to back his claim, and he actually worked for Wayne Enterprises! I haven’t mentioned the role played by Matthew Modine as stand-in Commissioner when Gordon is injured – they seriously could have cut that entire character from the movie and not missed a damn thing, his character was that pointless. I haven’t mentioned the curious decision made to make Alfred (always well-realized by the great Michael Caine) something of a over-emotional, crying baby in this movie. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the act of crying itself or anything like that, but seriously, did they really need to have Alfred bursting into tears in nearly every friggin’ scene he’s in? I think he’s in like…5 or 6 scenes in the movie, and he bursts into tears in three of them! We get it, he’s emotionally affected by what’s happening, it’s no doubt some heavy shit – but he doesn’t need to turn on the waterworks every time something emotional is happening! It’s just ridiculous! But anyway, I digress.
While The Dark Knight Rises certainly wasn’t a bad movie – I was genuinely entertained and impressed by its scale and production value – it just felt like a lackluster, soulless and dimly thought-out one. Chalk it up to the trilogy-ending stigma, I guess. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy is certainly one of the most cinematically satisfying film series to exist in modern times. I’m definitely glad to have been around to see them unfold and effect the populace the way they have – they’re just really fun, well-made movies than people can relate to. And I will always appreciate his brilliant decision to ground the movies in reality and make them a bit more believable in terms of character – that is what the superhero genre desperately needed. But, sadly, I cannot in all fairness deem The Dark Knight Rises a wholly effective entry into the series, and it certainly ain’t no masterpiece, like some publications have been frantically exclaiming. It’s a truly confounding film, one that tries so hard (and often succeeds) to entertain you on a visually spectacular level, but fails to find a solid base on which to tell a truly compelling story. I was disappointed with The Dark Knight Rises, but in all honesty, it could have been a lot worse. It’s just a shame it couldn’t fully live up to its predecessors.
But seriously, it’s still WAY, WAAAAY better than Batman & Robin. Fuck that movie.
THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER: THE RECOBBLED CUT
Starring Vincent Price, Hilary Pritchard, Anthony Quayle, Paul Matthews, Windsor Davies & Joan Sims
Directed by Richard Williams
Written by Richard Williams & Margaret French
Produced by Richard Williams & Imogen Sutton
Cinematography by John Leatherbarrow
Music by various classical artists
Compiled & Edited by Garrett Gilchrist
(Just a few notes before we begin: this review is for the 3rd version of The Recobbled Cut, otherwise known as Mark III. Mark IV is currently being worked on and will probably be released sometime in 2013. I’m not sure if I’ll update this in that event, but yeah, this is a review for the Mark III version. I’ve also gone back into this review and streamlined the parts in bold to make them fit into the review better. Yeah, sorry for going back and Lucasing my review, but hey, I just want it to look nice for y’all. One more thing: there are SPOILERS in here. I highly recommend you watch this film unspoiled, if you haven’t already. Whether or not you read this before seeing it is your choice. Anyway, onto the review!)
I’m gonna start off by stating the obvious: it’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, things would never go wrong for talented people. The masses would always flock to quality-made productions, artists would always get the upper hand over money-grubbing business executives, and inspired creations painstakingly crafted by good-natured people would always see the light of day and achieve the accolades they deserve. Unfortunately, life has an unfortunate knack for being cruelly unfair most of the time, and if there’s anybody on the planet who can attest to this fact with absolute pathos, it’s Richard Williams. There’s perhaps nobody else in the history of cinema who’s been as royally fucked over harder than Richard Williams, the genius director and master animator behind The Thief and the Cobbler. Once upon a time, Williams was a man with a dream – to create the greatest animated film the world had ever seen. And, in 1964, he set forth on the path to accomplishing this lofty goal. Sadly, it would never come to fruition: Thief spent the next 29 years in on-again off-again production only to be taken away from Williams at the last minute and drastically re-edited into a shameful, Disneyesque shitfest released into theaters in 1993 (and 1995, confusingly) as Arabian Knight…or, The Princess and the Cobbler…or, in some cases, just as The Thief and the Cobbler, which is probably the biggest slap in the face considering the fact the “finished” product was NOTHING like the Thief Williams had envisioned. For a long time, the dream was dead – and nobody in the general public had any clue about the hideous buttfucking the system had given this once great masterpiece of animated cinema.
Nobody, that is, until 2006, when a young filmmaker/animation aficionado named Garrett Gilchrist completed a little restoration project he titled The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut and released it for free onto the internet. Since then, awareness has been steadily growing regarding this lost animated gem, and for the first time, the public could finally sort-of witness the glory of what was intended to be the greatest animated film ever created by human consciousness. I remember stumbling along through the vast chasms of the Interwebz one day when I happened upon an article detailing the story of this troubled film in its entirety, which ended with a strong urging to seek out The Recobbled Cut. I had never heard of the released version of the movie before, and since I am a life-long, fanatically enthusiastic lover of animation, I was intrigued, and I took it upon myself to view this Recobbled Cut for great justice. And friends…it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, at least, in terms of cinema I’ve chosen to expose myself to. For you see, The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut is one of the most important and vital pieces of fan-made cultural preservation you will ever, EVER experience. I was absolutely blown away by Thief, even in its unfinished form – it really, truly is the greatest animated film ever made, a lovingly crafted and dazzingly animated epic tale of good & evil, fate & circumstance, random causality, dreams, and general cartoony goodness that will absolutely astonish your brain while you’re watching it. I really can’t say enough good things about it, which is why I’m writing this doozy of a film review to get it all out. It is now my responsibility to spread awareness of this film by any means necessary, and to alert the populace to both its raw, epic greatness and also its tragic tale of brutal mutilation at the hands of those unworthy of said greatness. And believe me, dear readers…I have every intention of doing so.
It’s important to note that The Recobbled Cut is NOT The Thief and the Cobbler – that film was never finished in its appropriate form. Rather, The Recobbled Cut is an appropriation of what that epic film would have been. It compiles unfinished animation and original storyboards to complete a story inspired by the Arabian Nights legends which is flawlessly executed with the help of incredibly vibrant, instantly memorable characters as a testament to the power and beauty of animation. Why anybody would want to stop that from happening is BEYOND me, but, it happened, ladies and gents. I’m sorry to say it, but you were all deprived of one of the coolest fucking movies that has ever existed – and now I’m here to try and help pick up the pieces.
The entire story of The Thief and the Cobbler – the production of the film itself, I mean – is long, confusing, and above all, tragic. First off, a brief background on Richard Williams: you know that old colloquialism about how someone “wrote the book” on a given topic? Well, Richard Williams IS that guy with concern to animation. Really! His book The Animator’s Survival Kit is considered THE definitive tome on the art of animation and is even used in animation classrooms all over. Also, he was the Oscar-winning animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. So basically, this guy rules at animating. Anyway, Richard Williams sought to make the entire film independently – with absolute creative control over what would happen in it. This was the obvious and highly important choice for the film, but a cold truth about the world is that independent animators don’t make a ton of money. Williams demanded perfection in the animation, down to the straightest line, striving to push the boundaries of what animation had previously accomplished – but doing so would cost a fortune. Think about it this way: time is money, and this movie took nearly 30 years to see some form of release – and it isn’t even fucking done yet. The amount of intricacy in the animation of this film is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing to see, but it didn’t come cheap. To pay for his expensive masterpiece, Williams (along with his animation studio) took on work from anyone who would be willing to pay – commercials, films, television shows, you name it, Richard Williams Studio was animating it.
The film originally began life as The Amazing Nasruddin, and was set to be a tale about Mulla Nasruddin, a legendary figure from Near Eastern folklore. The film’s name changed to The Majestic Fool, and then to Nasruddin! and production chugged along very slowly. Eventually, Williams had a falling out with some of the people he was planning the film with, and it was also determined that Nasruddin! was “too verbal” for a proper animated film, so the script was thrown out sometime around 1972. (I’ve actually seen some footage left over from Nasruddin!, and trust me…they were right.) However Williams, having gained a lot of visual reference and inspiration from Middle Eastern artwork and folklore, decided to make an entirely new production based in this world that would ideally become the greatest animated film ever created. Now titled The Thief and the Cobbler, Williams began production on this new project in 1973. Production was extremely slow, and due to Williams not faithfully following the script he had written, scenes were pretty much animated on a whim. Williams made it a point to hire animation legends to work on the project – names like Ken Harris, Art Babbitt, and Emery Hawkins. You might not know who these guys are, but they are all considered legends in the field of animation, and true masters of their craft. The film was conceived as a way to preserve their craft for all generations to come. Williams himself made things a bit of a problem, since he didn’t like the tyranny of scripts or storyboards hindering his creativity and ambition. Because of this, scenes were being animated without any bearing as to where they would end up in the film – many of the scenes involving the Thief doing random things that are in the film exist because Williams wanted to keep his master animators busy while he plotted out the entire film in his head.
After receiving some financial backing from a Saudi Arabian prince in the late ’70s and using it to complete the climax of the film (which contains some of the most intricate, complex and detailed animation ever committed to celluloid), Thief was comprised of about 12 minutes of completed footage. (The prince eventually backed out of the movie after Williams missed two deadlines and went drastically over budget.) Richard Williams put together a screening of the completed 12 minutes to show to potential financiers, and this caught the attention of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, who were in the process of prepping for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They checked out the animation for themselves, and after being thoroughly impressed, they offered Williams the position of Animation Director for Roger. Williams accepted the offer, knowing that he would finally be able to gain financial backing for The Thief and the Cobbler in return for working on such a high-profile project. And, after Roger was released in 1988 and became a huge box-office success which gained him two Academy Awards, it happened. Warner Bros. Pictures gave Williams proper funding, a distribution deal, and a 1991 deadline, and for the first time in the history of the film, it looked like it was actually going to be made. It was during this time that Williams began to truly gain the reputation of being a perfectionist blowhard: he was firing scores of animators left and right, staying extra late at the studio working on the film, and even throwing out entire completed scenes and re-animating them. To make matters worse, he still didn’t have a solid storyboard of the film, meaning the entire thing was pretty much in his head and nobody had any solid foundation to go on. By the time the 1991 deadline rolled around, production still had about 15 minutes of animation left to finish – animation which would take months to complete under Williams’ methods. It was also around this time that Disney began prepping their ad campaign for their new film Aladdin…which was also based on the Arabian Nights tales and bore some VERY striking resemblances to The Thief and the Cobbler (more of that later…believe me, it’s quite a tale). Feeling the pressure, Warner Bros. demanded Williams compile a workprint of the finished animation for the film, and use storyboards to fill in the parts that weren’t completed. Williams begrudgingly complied, and in 1992 the workprint was screened for the studio bigwigs.
The bigwigs were not happy. An ever-expanding budget and Williams’ slow working pace made Warner Bros. frustrated and nervous, and after 4 years of financial support, they effectively backed out of the project, citing lost confidence in Williams. A few months later, The Completion Bond Company (basically, just a film insurance company…you can imagine how many creative people were employed over there) seized control of the film and booted Williams out of the director’s chair. Basically, they had legal control over the project at this point, and Williams had no say in how it would continue. He was separated from his creation, and creative control was handed over to a man named Fred Calvert. Instead of finishing the film that Williams had started, Calvert decided to completely reconstruct the tone of the movie, and excise much of Williams’ original animation to make a more streamlined, family-friendly production. This differed strongly from Williams’ original vision of a mature, adult-oriented film…not in terms of “adult” themes, but you know…an actual film with a story that didn’t have cartoon animals singing about their feelings every 5 minutes. The execs ordered Calvert to finish the movie in the shortest amount of time possible for the smallest amount of money possible, and in 1993, Majestic Films bought the distribution rights from the Completion Bond Company and released this new version of the film in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler. Two years later, Miramax gained U.S. distribution rights and re-edited the film even further, making “brilliant” decisions such as adding Matthew Broderick and Johnathan Winters to the mix to provide voice-overs for the previously MUTE characters of the Thief and Tack the cobbler, and giving the film the oh-so-clever title of Arabian Knight. It was at this point the horrid fate of the once ambitious film was sealed.
Arabian Knight was released in America in 1995 to terrible critical reception and box office failure. It was considered a poor, misguided attempt at streamlining Williams’ vision and a blatant ripoff of Disney’s much more successful Aladdin, which was released in 1992. Calvert had gone about adding horrible, unmemorable Disneyesque songs to the production, and those were also criticized for being the horrid piles of shame that they were. In the end, The Thief and the Cobbler had been butchered by the Hollywood system – a victim of both overzealous ambitions from the creator and cheap, uninspired completion methods from the company that stole it from him. A genuine work of art downgraded to a cheaply-made, by-the-numbers commodity. Richard Williams vowed to never speak of the film again, a vow which he has stuck to for the most part. And seriously, can you blame the guy?
But you see my friends, we’ve finally come full circle: In the 2000′s, a filmmaker named Garrett Gilchrist set off on a quest to see The Thief and the Cobbler somewhat restored to its former glory. Going directly to the animators who worked on the film, Gilchrist eventually gathered together all of the released and unreleased footage, voice recordings, music selections and storyboards and edited it all together to create The Recobbled Cut, which currently stands as the closest anyone has come to completing The Thief and the Cobbler as a whole. Be happy that Gilchrist did that, ladies and gents, because he basically saved an entire work of art from tragic obscurity.
So now, after reading that long and admittedly twisty tale, you may be saying to yourself “Well, that sucks for him. But why should I care?” The reason you should care, my friends, is because The Thief and the Cobbler – had it been finished – really, genuinely would have been the greatest animated film of all time!!! Seriously, this is a movie which would have been played countless times on television, become an international landmark classic, and would’ve had a grand impact on the face of cinematic history as we know it. The film is seemingly made out of pure imagination, streamed directly from some unknown and mystical source directly into your retinas. The quality of the animation is breathtaking – you can definitely see the effort that went into the flawless, fluid motions of the characters and the world they inhabit. The movie is just straight up fun to look at! It’s pure eye candy while also being a completely satisfying cinematic experience.
So now that you’ve heard the tale of how the movie was made, just what the hell is the movie about? Well, it’s about some really well thought-out and developed characters, for one thing. The hero of our adventure is Tack, a lowly cobbler in an old Arabian city who – through a series of seemingly random and coincidental events – ends up becoming the prince of all the land, with the beautiful Princess Yum Yum (that’s right) by his side. It’s also the tale of an unnamed Thief, who is simultaneously a crucial yet largely unnoticed part of the events which unfold. Sliming his way through the mayhem to be our antagonist is Zigzag, an ugly and very blue Grand Vizier who lusts for power and is extremely well-voiced by none other than Vincent Price, and undeniable film legend who goes all out to help imbue Zigzag with the right amount of hilarity and hubris and fully realize him as one of the creepiest, most lecherous animated villains ever devised. Despite her, uh, “simple” name, Princess Yum Yum is actually a very strong female character – we actually see her do things in the movie, and she utilizes her feminine charm (and wrath, at least on Zigzag’s vulture Phido) to get shit done. I really enjoy her character a lot because she’s not just an airhead princess – she has personality and that previously mentioned charm which shines through the screen because of her amazing animation. She’s treated respectfully, and it makes her character that much stronger. And one thing I want to mention about Tack is his mouth – he doesn’t really have one. Well, he does, but it’s always closed and unmoving. Instead, his mouth expressions are handled by tacks which he keeps in his mouth like toothpicks – when he’s happy, they perk up! When he’s sad, they droop. It’s a really clever trick that works perfectly for guy who doesn’t really talk that much. All of these characters are so well defined, and have their own visual styles which are instantly ingrained on your memory – truly, there’s no better compliment you can give to successful animated characters.
So anyway, the story begins with a narrator, who sets the stage by informing us -
“It is written among the limitless constellations of the celestial heavens, and in the depths of the emerald seas, and upon every grain of sand in the vast deserts, that the world which we see is an outward and visible dream…of an inward and invisible reality.“
– which might be the coolest fucking opening line for any movie that has ever existed in the history of EVER. The pure epicness of that one line alone is but a taste of the glorious wonder which is to follow – but I’m digressing. The narrator continues to tell us that once upon a time, there was a city made entirely of gold. In the city, on top of the tallest minaret, were three gold balls of some magical variety. It had been prophesized that if the golden balls were ever taken away, then “harmony would fall to discord” and the city would come to “destruction and death.” Keeping up? The prophecy also states that the city would be saved by the “simplest of souls with the smallest and simplest of things.”
This introduces us to Tack, who we find sleeping peacefully in his shoe shop. Soon after, the narrative introduces us to the Thief, who remains otherwise nameless throughout the entire film. The design of the Thief is hilarious – he’s a skinny, sickly-green fellow with a large cloak used for stashing a large quantity of stolen goods. He attempts to rob a little old lady, who immediately turns the tables on him by thoroughly beating him senseless and literally tying him into knots. It’s a great introduction to both the Thief and the old lady (who later turns out to be Princess Yum Yum’s nanny), and it properly establishes both the whimsical nature of the story and the cartoonish silliness employed throughout the film. Eventually, the Thief wanders into Tack’s shoe shop, where he vainly attempts to rob the broke cobbler of any cash he might have. Meanwhile, the sound of loud music can be heard, as an entirely self-important parade takes place on the street for Zigzag the Grand Vizier, who clearly thinks very highly of himself as he sort of dance-walks through the square as a group of hastily-moving underlings continually roll up and unfurl a carpet beneath his feet as he walks – it’s a hilarious image, and instantly defines Zigzag as the biggest douche ever. After waking to find he has accidentally stitched himself to the Thief while he was sleeping, Tack and the Thief awkwardly stumble out onto the street, where several of Tack’s tacks spill out right where Zigzag is about to step. He steps on one, and after screaming in pain he immediately orders Tack to be seized and taken to the palace, where his fate will be decided.
By this point the film has already established an important precedent: this is a highly VISUAL story – as it should be! The animation, character designs, and backgrounds are so gloriously rendered it’s almost unbelievable to witness. The main characters of the film – the Thief and Tack the cobbler – are entirely silent. As in, they DO NOT SPEAK. This is a very obvious aesthetic choice that Richard Williams made, and it helps to emphasize the visuals as the primary storytelling compenent. This is where the Miramax-helmed shitfest Arabian Knight goes horribly wrong – they actually give Tack and the Thief fuckin’ voices! Tack has the horrible misfortune of being awkwardly voiced by Matthew Broderick – whose involvement in anything pretty much guarantees a sheen of mediocrity. Miramax got away with this by making Tack the narrator of the film – and he pretty much spells out everything that anybody with half a brain could figure out just by, you know…watching the fucking movie. They even went in and added scenes of Tack saying such brilliant things like “Why can’t I ever talk when it matters?”…which is pretty much the stupidest, most disrespectful thing you could make a previously mute character say. But still, despite the horrible treatment Tack received, it’s nothing compared to the evil slaughtering the Thief’s character underwent. Miramax decided to make the Thief “a man of few words…but many thoughts” because, apparently, having an entirely mute character in a cartoon is too risky and ridiculous of a thing to do. So they got a comedian named Johnathan Winters to provide CONTINUOUS voice-over “thought-speech” to THE ENTIRE MOVIE. So basically, this just means that some asshole is making terrible, pop culture-referencing “jokes” over beautiful animation that has absolutely NO BEARING on the story at all! And worst of all, it doesn’t stop!!! The Thief is constantly jabbering away “in his head”, but nothing – NOTHING he thinks has anything to do with anything. It really is a baffling and infuriating thing to watch.
You might be wondering why I’m getting so furious over some stupid voices added to an animated film, and the reason is because doing so completely rapes the entire point of what Richard Williams set out to accomplish, and because it totally bastardizes the characters! Tack and the Thief are NOT supposed to talk. Period. To think that they needed to talk for some reason is not only foolish, but offensive to Richard Williams AND the audience. We don’t need things spelled out for us, especially in an animated film where the visuals are all we need to understand what is happening. It’s self-indulgent, unnecessary, redundant, boring, and worst of all, annoying. It’s a big reason why Arabian Knight is considered an atrocious film. Now, I will add an asterisk here saying that Tack does indeed have one line in The Recobbled Cut, but it’s so gloriously awesome that I won’t spoil what he says or when he says it. When it happens, it makes sense and it’s just so surprising that your brain can’t help but enjoy it! With Arabian Knight, it doesn’t make sense in the slightest – it just illustrates how terribly Richard Williams and his art were screwed over.
Anyway, I got a little sidetracked from the story…I’m sorry, but there’s just so much to talk about with this movie. Tack is taken into the palace where he meets King Nod – who is very appropriately named because he always seems to be nodding off to sleep – and his daughter, the beautiful Princess Yum Yum. Zigzag wants to have Tack killed because he “attacked” him in the square, but Yum Yum instantly sees something in Tack and purposely breaks her shoe so she can save the cobbler’s life. This infuriates Zigzag, who has something of a longing for Yum Yum himself. Meanwhile, the Thief sets his eyes on the legendary golden balls atop the minaret, and sets about trying to get into the palace walls so he can steal them. Why would the Thief want to steal these balls that are bound to the city’s fate? Well, the first thing you should know about the Thief is that he’s an idiot, and the second is that this guy does NOT think about anything besides stealing (another reason why making him a “man of many thoughts” is retarded). He’s the king of kleptomaniacs, putting stealing above his own life in almost every aspect. A lot of the movie revolves around scenes with the Thief trying to steal something in some way, even though it only directly influences the plot twice – he’s mainly used as comedy relief throughout the film, and indeed is barely noticed by any other characters as things progress. In fact, Tack is the only major character who directly interacts with the Thief, or seems to even be aware of his existence. There’s a scene in which the Thief has successfully gained access to the palace’s inner chambers, where he runs into Tack fixing Yum Yum’s shoe. The Thief steals it and Tack chases after him, leading to one of the most visually stimulating and powerfully exciting chase sequences in motion picture history. Tack chases the Thief through a series of M.C. Escher-inspired set pieces that comprise the interior of the palace – perspective and the laws of physics are thrown out the window and the characters are forced to make their way through the mayhem while we watch with delight. Seriously, it’s one of the coolest things you’ll ever see, and even though it only lasts about 40 seconds, it leaves a permanent imprint on your brain. Had Thief been completed and released into theaters, I guarantee it would have become one of the film’s standout and signature scenes. I guess we can thank our lucky stars that the sequence is one of the ones which is completely finished.
Another thing I’d like to randomly point out about The Recobbled Cut that’s worth mentioning is the music. The music used here – like everything else about the film – is simply breathtaking and perfectly utilized for the visuals we’re seeing. The classical pieces chosen are so well-edited and synced to what is happening in the film that it almost seems like they were written for the movie, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know much about the process of how the film’s music was chosen, or about Williams’ full intent with how the music was utilized in it, but just judging from the way it exists in The Recobbled Cut I’ve come to the conclusion that Williams definitely intended for The Thief to be somewhat of a musical experience, too. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful, epic 40-minute masterpiece Scheherazade sort of serves as the main theme of the movie; its gorgeous strings and horns are heard throughout the film and various points. Without a doubt, it’s the single piece of music that gives the entirety of The Recobbled Cut its flavor. The rest of the music in the film is beautiful as well, and luckily for us, there are several moments where the animation has been timed sublimely with the accompanying music – there’s a scene where the Thief comically bounces around on the canopies of the marketplace windows in a botched attempt at getting to the top of the minaret, and the silly music chosen for the scene fits perfectly – the tone of the music, the swoops of the horns…it all matches with the action of the animation perfectly. There’s another scene with the Thief in which he has fashioned some makeshift wings out of palm fronds to swoop off a tall cliffside with, in an attempt to steal the ruby off of The Great Ruby Idol (gotta hand it to the Thief…he goes for the big grabs). After a very dodgy launch, he eventually soars into the air and begins flying around to the sound of a patriotic-sounding U.S. Air Force battle march, evoking the greatest memories of old-time aerial war films. The Thief and the Cobbler has a built-in lyricism to it, a structure of a somewhat loose and musical kind. The music seems to guide the story, while at the same time existing outside of it…indeed, the music somewhat serves as another character in the film, making just as much of an impression as the cast of characters it’s scoring. It’s really an effective move, and best of all, it’s done subtly – the music actually serves the story without interfering with it. This is MUCH different than the Bond Company/Miramax edits, which unnecessarily add some of the most laziest, monotonous, unoriginal, and straight-up simple-minded Disney-cribbing songs you could ever imagine. This literally shits in the face with Williams’ original vision, which – as I’m sure is quite apparent – was the polar opposite of the Disney brand of animated filmmaking. I’ll give it to Aladdin…there are some pretty damn good songs in that flick, and let’s face it, that’s what Disney’s strong suite is. That’s why blatantly RIPPING IT OFF and then adding it to a film which was NOT supposed to have ANYTHING LIKE THAT IN IT is misguided, thoughtless, stupid, and insulting…plus many more negative adjectives I won’t list here. It literally boggles the mind. Now, I will say that The Recobbled Cut does use some of the score from the Miramax edit – not the songs of course, but just the background score – but it’s only in scenes where some other piece of music might not have fit, and in all fairness, the musical score of Arabian Knight was probably the least worst thing about that release. Gilchrist did a fantastic job of being able to pull together something great from sources of varying quality, and the score he’s stitched together is another miraculous triumph.
So anyway, once the Thief successfully steals the golden balls (but loses them due to incurable clumsiness), the city is thrown into panicked chaos. Zigzag orders his lackies to retrieve the balls, and, once he has them, he uses it to his advantage by trying to coax King Nod into letting him marry Yum Yum in exchange for returning the golden balls. This offends Nod horribly, and he orders Zigzag out of the palace for good. Zigzag then decides to take the balls to the One-Eyes, a savage and fierce race of one-eyed men who plan to invade the Golden City and take it as their own. Meanwhile, the king sends his daughter and Tack (with the Thief in pursuit) into the desert to find the Mad and Holy Old Witch, the only one who can tell them how to save the city from the One-Eye invasion. Along the way they run into a group of comedic imbeciles called the Brigands, whom Yum Yum assigns as her Royal Guards to prevent them from pillaging their little caravan. The Brigands are pretty hilarious, but apart from getting our heroes back to the Golden City quickly after they’ve met the Witch, they serve no real purpose in the story. This isn’t really a bad thing though, because their foolishness adds a whimsical touch to the middle segment of the film. However, once they return to the city, they find the One-Eyes preparing for their invasion with a giant, impossibly elaborate War Machine and thousands of marching troops. I won’t spoil what happens from this point on, but I’ll just let you know that it involves some of the most complex, intricate animation ever devised and is an extremely satisfying (if highly unlikely) climax to the film. The War Machine sequence is also mostly finished, and we can definitely breath a sigh of relief that this unbelievably detailed animation is preserved for our enjoyment.
On that note, let’s talk about the unfinished nature of The Recobbled Cut. Yes, this movie is not complete. The movie seamlessly transitions from fully finished animation one moment to very rough, sort-of finished animation the next, or in some cases, just basic storyboard drawings. Backgrounds are unfinished, sound effects are missing, and entire sequences are told through stills. You might be thinking that watching an unfinished film with still pictures and basic line drawings spliced in may seem tedious or boring, but you would be WRONG boy, because watching Thief with the incomplete parts intact is like looking into the brain of a genius animator. We get a glimpse into the process of traditional animation, and an understanding of how painstaking and meticulous the animators got with this thing. The unfinished footage actually adds to the movie, and in a way, makes it feel that much more ethereal – it’s really, really cool. I’ve actually watched the film with people who were unaware of its unfinished nature, and midway through they asked me if it was stylistically that way on purpose. After explaining why it was like that, they told me they thought it added to the film’s resonance. And it does! Now, don’t get me wrong – the movie would definitely be a LOT better if it was actually finished. There’s actually segments of The Recobbled Cut which feel bogged down because of its unfinished nature – mainly, the middle part of the movie where our heroes venture into the desert to meet the Mad and Holy Old Witch. This is definitely the part of the movie that would have benefited from just a little more time from Warner Bros before they pulled the plug. I’d much rather see the completed animation than storyboards added in to fill up space, but this is a classic case of taking what you can get. While it would be astronimically awesome to see Thief completed and fully animated, it is a visual treat to see the unfinished work spliced in as well – it just adds to the surreality of the film. Another interesting thing about The Recobbled Cut is that it actually uses some of the Fred Calvert-helmed animation to fill in space in a few key spots – King Nod gets an extra line when sending Yum Yum on her quest into the desert, some footage of Tack and Yum Yum meeting the Witch from The Princess and the Cobbler is used, and perhaps most appropriately a scene at the end in which the Thief is hoisted up above a crowd in celebratory recognition is used. All of these things were absent from Williams’ original workprint, and they are actually really tactful additions put in by Garrett Gilchrist. They work extremely well, despite their woeful source of existence. That’s makin’ some good lemonade out of some pretty shitty lemons, folks.
At this point, I want to take a moment to focus on something you may have noticed in the pictures – Zigzag looks an awwwwfulllll lot like an effective combination between the Genie and Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. Just for reference, take a close look at the pictures here:
The Genie and Zigzag are both blue and have wild facial expressions. Jafar bears a striking resemblance to Zigzag and is also a Grand Vizier to an uninvolved, somewhat lackadaisical ruler. A royal princess falls in love with a poor scamp and they go on an epic adventure together. Zigzag even has a pet vulture named Phido, and Jafar has a pet parrot named Iago. Both of the films take place in old-school Arabian marketplaces and palaces (although Thief‘s palace is much, much cooler). Both of the heroes are imprisoned by their respective Grand Viziers after getting up close and personal with their respective princesses. Both of the movies feature a trick based on the idea that they’re on film reels at their endings…Aladdin with the Genie’s “made ya look” thing and Thief concluding with the Thief stealing the film…and I could go on.
Now, we could just chalk this up to extreme coincidence, and say that it’s just random circumstance that two characters from a multi-million dollar production would look so much like one character from a mostly independently-funded production which had been in the making for at least 28 years. You could also say it’s a coincidence that Aladdin and The Thief and the Cobbler both take place in old Arabian times, feature princesses, kings and grand viziers, and both take influence from the Arabian Nights folklore – hell, you could even argue that said influence is the reason for these striking similarities…in the story, at least. But then I could tell you a little story about an Japanese anime program called Kimba the White Lion, created by anime legend/godfather Osamu Tezuka. It ran on television in the mid-60′s and featured a colorful cast of talking animals. Kimba was the son of a great lion who strived for peace in the jungle and provided a haven for animals everywhere.
Sound sort of familiar?
So, you could say that all of these things are just a huge coincidence, and Disney just happened to create huge-budget movies that have striking similarities to these other lesser-known projects. Or you could say they are swindling assholes who completely jacked the intellectual properties of others so they could make a quick buck. You see, either one of these could be true, but they can’t BOTH be true. All I know is, Thief was in production for a LONG time before Aladdin was even a thought in anyone’s head. Over the years, Williams hired and fired a slew of animators, especially during the Warner Bros.-funded era in the late 80′s…right before Aladdin was conceived and created. Getting fired by someone is no doubt an infuriating experience, and William fired plenty of animators who logically might have gone to work for Disney. Not only that, but it’s kind of impossible to be working on something for decades and not have people in your related field gain knowledge about it in some way. The Thief and the Cobbler was infamous in animation circles before Aladdin was released. Now, I wasn’t there, and there’s no hard evidence to prove it, but I would NOT put it past Disney to completely rip off the hard work of someone else – especially if there were people there who felt slighted at Williams’ gall to create an admittedly self-righteous “greatest animated film ever” and fire the people he got to do it. I dunno, it just sort of makes sense to me. I almost don’t want to believe it, but it’s hard for me to look away from the probability that Aladdin is a giant, multi-million dollar “Fuck You” to Richard Williams. They basically took his beautiful, complex, artistically original masterpiece and warped it into a mainstream commodity to sell merchandise with. And it’s also hard to look over the fact that it was BECAUSE of Aladdin that The Thief and the Cobbler began to fall apart! And THEN you can look at the fact that Miramax – which, if you remember, released Arabian Knight – is a DISNEY-OWNED COMPANY. Warner Bros. felt the pressure from Disney because of Aladdin and backed out of The Thief because Williams couldn’t finish it on time. Now, they might have done this eventually anyway, but I’m willing to bet that if Aladdin wasn’t about to be released, they would have given him at least a LITTLE more time. It really is a clusterfuck of a situation – and Richard Williams just happened to come out on the bottom.
Now, just for clarity’s sake, I would like to state that I am not trying to bash on Aladdin as a movie itself. In all honesty, I think I’ve pretty much been a fan of Aladdin for my entire life. If you ever asked me what my absolute favorite Disney movie was sometime over the past few years, I definitely would have told you Aladdin. In fact, the chances are very good that it was the first movie I ever saw…if you’ve ever read the “My Mission” section of this site, I mention that the earliest memory I can fully remember is going to see Aladdin with my family in the movie theater, so Aladdin has pretty much been there my whole life. But now that it’s exactly 20 years later, I’ve grown up, slightly matured, and learned many things about the world…and one of them is that Disney – let’s face it – is a pretty fucked up company. I don’t want to get into a long tirade about the evils of Disney or whatever, because honestly, I have quite a few mixed feelings about it…I mean, like I said, I fuckin’ LOVED Aladdin. And I still think Aladdin is a well-made film for what it is…but now, after experiencing The Thief and the Cobbler and learning of its long and winding history, I can’t help but look at Aladdin in an unpleasant and disappointed light. I mean, even if it ISN’T true that Disney completely ripped off Richard Williams’ ideas – which could possibly be the case – Aladdin still doesn’t measure up to the greatness that Thief was aiming for, and it certainly pales as a work of art by comparison. The Thief and the Cobbler was conceived from a purely genuine, creative place of inspiration, and was trying to break new boundaries as an artistic statement and in a wonderful field of expression. Aladdin is just the same ol’ Disney shit we’ve seen over and over time and time again, just shoved into a different package. It’s painfully obvious that it’s just another commodity with that “Disney Sheen” on it. And don’t get me wrong, the “Disney Sheen” is mighty fine – they obviously have been doing it right for generations now! And I don’t want to stomp on Walt Disney’s grave…I mean, the man built an EPIC legacy, pioneering animation as a major art form and influencing millions of people along the way. He made the very first animated film for chrissakes, he’s a goddamn American icon. But the company he built has become something of a money-guzzling juggernaut, doing everything in its power to suck the money out of your wallet. The vast control they have over the media is as undeniable as it is gargantuan and far-reaching – Disney owns a SHITLOAD of movie-production companies (again, including Miramax), TV stations, clothing lines, THEME PARKS, and other marketing what-have-yous. Disney has become a multimedia and cultural titan, and when they have that much pull in the entertainment industry, I think it’s fairly obvious they can do whatever the fuck they want – even if it is destroying a true artist’s potentially game-changing work of art. And The Thief and the Cobbler is DEFINITELY a game-changer – that’s pretty much what Williams had in mind, I think. So I dunno, the point is Aladdin is now officially in an awkward place within my psyche. There’s definitely a sense of innocence lost within me, and sadness over the fact I can never view a movie I previously loved with the same outlook again…The Thief and the Cobbler is pretty much to blame for that. But, overall, I actually think that it’s a good thing, and even something that my life has kind of been leading up to in a very strange, specific way – it’s like a lesson just for me about the nature of the world. For me, Aladdin is caught somewhere between a beloved childhood favorite and a lecherous, manipulative and totally underhanded marketing campaign. I’m guessing the truth is somewhere in the middle – but there is no doubt in my mind that The Thief and the Cobbler is vastly, unequivocally superior.
Man, I could literally write about The Thief and the Cobbler for days on end and never get tired of it, or run out of things to talk about. There’s just so many intricate layers to the film, and its meanings and interpretations. I haven’t even talked about the small, barely noticeable details that pop out at you every time you re-watch the movie because of the intricate amounts of things happening in almost every frame, or the scenes hand-drawn in fully-realized, twisty-turny three dimensional space which were animated WITHOUT the use of computer animation, or even the references to drug use and psychedelia when the Mad and Holy Old Witch inhales “mystic fumes” which show her the way to save the Golden City. The film functions not only as a substantial dissertation on the random, chaotic nature of existence, but also on a really basic level as just a funny cartoon – the sequences with the Thief evoke the greatest memories of the classic Looney Tunes repertoire, with hilarious sight gags and visually pleasing physical comedy that would entertain even the smallest of children with no concept of the deeper themes being explored. That is the true mark of a successful film, in my opinion – one that works on a deeply complex level, and also on an entertainingly simple one. The Thief and the Cobbler will forever stand as one of cinema’s greatest disappointments, not because of the content of the film itself, but because it was never able to appropriately see the light of day. I just KNOW that if this movie had been released properly in the late 70′s, the 80′s, or even in the mid-90′s, it would have completely rocked the world of animated cinema and changed everything as we know it. It’s a highly inspirational and influential film, and I know this because it’s had a profound effect just on me and my life. It truly is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of my absolute favorites of all time. I honestly think my life is better because I have seen it, and I think a lot of people would benefit from viewing it and hearing its story. I highly, HIGHLY recommend The Recobbled Cut to literally everybody in the entire world…seriously, go onto YouTube and watch it, it’s pretty easy to find. I think there’s something for everyone in this movie, at least one thing that somebody can find and hold onto after viewing it. It’s a genuine work of art which has been swept under the rug for the crime of being perhaps TOO great…but it’s still there for us to experience.
Perhaps The Thief and the Cobbler was destined for failure even from the beginning. Perhaps Richard Williams’ ambitions were too great, and maybe a movie of its scope and scale was just too much for the world to handle. But thanks to The Recobbled Cut, we at least have some semblance of the genius that Richard Williams was trying to give us. Garret Gilchrist should be praised for his invaluable efforts to restore the film to its former glory, and I thank my lucky stars I was able to experience it in some way because of his resolve. History might forget The Thief and the Cobbler, but I know that for as long as I live, I never will. Richard Williams once said the film he was making was in “the language of a dream” – perhaps that’s why it got lost in translation when he tried to express it in reality. But all I know is, in a perfect world, this movie would have been released, and it would have gotten the accolades it deserves. But even with its imperfections, the fact The Recobbled Cut exists as it does reflects the very world in which we live in…and you know what? I think it’s pretty damn good enough.
THE AVENGERS (2012)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner & Samuel L. Jackson
Written & Directed by Joss Whedon
Produced by Kevin Feige
Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey
Music by Alan Silvestri
Edited by Jeffrey Ford & Lisa Lassek
You know, it’s funny – I didn’t really have a huge desire to see this movie. I’m not really a big comics guy – I certainly admire them, but I’ve definitely never gone out and collected superhero comic books the way so many out there do. My only real association with the world of comics is through the movies based on them – in case you haven’t noticed, I’m definitely more of a movie guy. And, given the slew of mediocre to terrible superhero comics-to-film adaptations out there (amidst the genuinely awesome ones, of course), I wasn’t getting my hopes up too much for this release. Honestly, a mega-million dollar movie with gigantic stars playing strong people in fancy suits doesn’t really throw my Indulgence Necessity Meter (INM) for a loop. I can appreciate the fact that these are all super-legendary characters with huge, devoted followings, and the fact it’s pretty cool that a movie like this has never really been done before – an epic unification of several large media franchises into one grand story. This is definitely what could be labelled as an “event film”. And yet, for that very reason, I felt this strange obligation to see it. I’ve definitely grown distrustful of the recent fascination with loud, high-budget, computer-enhanced, scenery-destruction-obsessed movies centering on spectacle rather than story – having my brain barraged with images of cartoon robots blowing shit up for no reason ain’t exactly my idea of a fun time at the movies. But, the good news is, there’s still a possibility to have a wild spectacle-heavy action flick that actually manages to tell a decent story. I guess it was with that hope in mind that I actually decided to check this particular cash-in flick out. It’s shamelessly over-the-top, extravagant entertainment, but the best thing about The Avengers is…it knows that.
Now, with that all out of the way, I can tell you that The Avengers is a really fun movie. I can definitely say I was entertained while I was watching it, and there enough new ideas and interesting turns in there to keep a seasoned film buff (read: cynical snob) like myself satisfied. I especially enjoyed seeing the personalities of these superpowerful titans bouncing off each other – even more than the incredible action sequences where they were physically doing the exact same thing. The movie really focuses on the forming of this group of extraordinary individuals into a cohesive team – which is cool when you start seeing Iron Man and Thor fucking throw down in the middle of the forest. I gotta say, it’s the most appealing thing about the movie, and exactly why it’s already going to gross near-Avatar levels – it’s just fun to see all of these movies meld into one. Although I am highly critical of the slew of superhero movies being shoved down our throats lately, I do have to admit their tactic was pretty genius – and it’s obviously working. I mean, it’s good for them – they get money. Meanwhile, we have to put up with mediocre films. I guess it’s a fair enough tradeoff, because eventually we get The Avengers – the big one that a bunch of those superhero movies were leading up to. They’ve taken the comic book mentality and thrust it onto the big screen – for better or for worse.
So The Avengers is fun. But is it really necessary? The answer is no, of course not. I’m not trying to say it’s not worth your time, or that it’s a terrible film – I’ve definitely seen plenty big-budget, star-studded action flicks WAY worse than this one. It’s just…..don’t let it get to your head. This is pure film fluff at its highest form – a purely mind-numbing exercise in awe-inducing spectacle with just enough plot and character development to be acceptable. And it is! This is a very quality made film. But once you get down to it, it’s just another superhero movie…or rather, several of them. It is interesting to see all of these stories intersect with one another, and there are plenty of individual character moments where – if you were to take the particular scene out of the movie and watch it separately – it would definitely seem like it was a solo movie for that character. That’s probably the movie’s greatest feat: effectively welding all of these crazy-ass epic stories together. I think the credit clearly goes to uber-writer/first time film director Joss Whedon here. I’m pretty sure Whedon’s entire life has been leading to his involvement with this film, meaning that he actually had a DEEP interest in doing a big-screen version of this comic book right. The dude’s actually written comics before, and he’s written movies (including the last one I reviewed) – he knows how both work and how to integrate them effectively, so it works! By this end, the movie was in VERY good hands. And it shows.
So what the hell is this movie about anyway? Why, it’s about superheroes trying to save the fuckin’ world, ya dope!!! What else would it be about? I mean, you could also say it’s about how teamwork and putting aside differences – no matter how super you are – is the most effective way to get the job at hand done, but no, it’s about SAVIN’ THE WORLD!!! Therefore, the plot is quite simple: Loki, the evil and “adopted” brother of Thor (his words, not mine) portal-warps onto our planet and starts killing everyone he sees (except for the important characters) because he wants to rule the puny humans. He got here by using the Tesseract, an energy cube of unlimited and unknown power that us humans found at the bottom of the ocean. After some good guys get mind-bent over to Loki’s side, including the absolutely savage archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (the right-at-home Samuel L. Jackson) takes one in the bulletproof vest, said victim of pesky bullet-tickling waits for the bad guys to leave without killing him and orders the re-engagement of The Avengers Initiative – a super elite team of Earth’s mightiest heroes to take the son of a bitch down before he subjugates all of mankind. From that point on the entire movie is pretty much just down to meeting the Avengers, and seeing them overcome personal differences to have a drawn-out yet highly kickass battle at the end of the movie.
Normally, I would say that such a lack of plot would be a detriment to a film this huge, but in a strange way, the miniscule narrative is actually part of the fun of the movie. Since everything is laid out for us to understand, we can pretty much just focus on the characters, which is a GOOD thing. If there’s one thing Joss Whedon can do, it’s write snappy, witty dialogue that fits characters appropriately, and it’s really fun to watch. Another big thing working for the movie are the performances: there are a lot of kickass actors in this film, and while their talents might be better off being in some Oscar-baiting type of material, they work wonders here. I may be biased, since I think she’s one of the most beautiful women on the entire planet, but Scarlett Johansson really knocks it out of the park as Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. I also think she’s a really gifted actress, so that helps as well. I will admit, I’ve always thought of Scarlett as having a bit more class than this kind of movie…seeing her in this makes me think of the scene in Lost In Translation where her character sees a dumb blonde actress doing press for a stupid action flick she did. But I can definitely say that Scarlett brings a lot of class to the role, and she totally looks badass beating the shit out of countless thugs, so maybe it’s not that big of a deal. Anyway, her character was introduced to the movie-going populace in Iron Man 2, and quite frankly, apart from her scene where she kicks a bunch of dudes’ asses in a hallway, she was pretty much wasted in that movie. (I actually think that entire movie was a waste, but that’s another review.) It’s really refreshing to see her strut her stuff more here, and her character manages to fit in quite well amongst the hodgepodge of superhuman testosterone.
Also bringing something surprising to the table was Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. Now, The Hulk hasn’t really had the greatest luck when it comes to super big-budget film adaptations. Hulk, the Ang Lee-directed first outing from 2003, was a boring, self-indulgent mess. The Incredible Hulk, the 2008 reboot starring Edward Norton, was….pretty cool, I guess, but nothing great. This time around, The Hulk is one of the most enjoyable things about the movie, and I really think it’s because of Mark Ruffalo. At first I wasn’t really sure how he would measure up compared to the other actors (especially Robert Downey Jr., who still is my favorite out of all these people) but Ruffalo definitely holds his own and kind of makes me wish they had gone with him from the get-go. He brings a charming awkwardness to Bruce Banner, making him a strange, nerdy type of fellow who just happens to be harboring one of the most unpredictable and destructive forces in the galaxy inside his person. Next to Downey Jr., who was pretty much born to play the role of Tony Stark, I’d say he gives one of the film’s strongest performances.
I really don’t have a lot else to say about The Avengers…it’s really quite a simple film, at least in terms of what it’s there to do. It’s certainly a fun, exciting, very well-executed piece of commercial filmmaking, and it actually has a brain thanks to a competent writer/director. The action sequences are exhilarating, although a little lacking in suspense (c’mon, you already know they’re going to win. It’s, uh….it’s obvious), and it has great dialogue and performances from everyone involved. But I will say again…this is purely a piece of commercial filmmaking. I’m hesitant to even really call it “art”…this movie was definitely made because the people making it want to make a yacht-full of money. And they are succeeding. The movie’s already broken the world record for the highest grossing opening weekend of all time, and it’s only going to keep getting bigger from there – I wouldn’t be surprised if it dethroned Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time. But what I’m trying to say is, there are definitely more artfully executed, genuinely thoughtful movies out there that are probably more deserving of the the jillions of dollars and heaps of accolades this movie will accrue. The Avengers is a pop culture-infused juggernaut, the result of a carefully laid-out plan to infiltrate the wallets of as many average citizens as possible. I’m probably sounding more grumpy and lame than I mean to, but in all honesty, I just don’t think this movie is that big of a deal. It accomplishes telling a coherent story with a multitude of epic characters, and for that it’s impressive. I definitely recommend it to anyone looking to have a fun time watching a movie, because at the end of the day, that’s what movies are for! But like I said…just don’t let it get to your head.