Gallipoli (1981)

Gallipoli

Dir. Peter Weir, 1981

On his way to becoming Australia’s preeminent filmmaker, Peter Weir wrote and directed Gallipoli, the story of the most infamous battle ever fought by Australian forces. More than 1% of the young nation’s population died in the First World War, and over eight thousand of those died in vain trying to capture Gallipoli, Turkey’s gateway to the sea of Marmara.

Mark Lee and Mel Gibson play rival sprinters in the Western Australian hinterland who run away to join the ANZAC and fight in the Great War. While Lee is eager to fight for his country, Gibson is more cynical until rejoining his old railroad buddies. After walking to Perth then training and making trouble in Egypt, Gallipoli comes in full force.

Rather than make a non-threatening prestige film, Weir set Gallipoli apart by taking a very long time to get to the battle, and making the battle relentlessly bloody. It is this decision, along with Weir’s austere style and superb acting from Lee, Gibson, and all the supporting actors (like recently passed Aussie film regular Bill Hunter), that make Gallipoli stand the test of time. A

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Velvet Goldmine (1998)

SPOILER ALERT: As these reviews are of an academic nature, they may contain spoilers. Those that do feature this warning. Future reviews will try to limit spoilers for a public audience, but until then, read at your own risk.

Velvet Goldmine

Dir. Todd Haynes, 1998

Before Todd Haynes acheived mainstream fame with his wonderfully bizarre, allegorical Bob Dylan “biopic” I’m Not There, he made Velvet Goldmine. Originally intended to be a straight-up depiction of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period, David Bowie’s refusal to get involved due to the racy bisexual content resulted in a quick rewrite involving Oscar Wilde, magical alien brooches, a 1980s dystopia, and fictionalized versions of Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and others.

Christian Bale plays Arthur Stewart, a journalist and former rocker who goes on assignment to find Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former Glam rock superstar who disappeared completely after faking his own assassination onstage. Through interviews and flashbacks, we discover Slade’s triumphs and scandals, only to reveal that he has secretly reinvented himself as a Reaganite pop idol with a different identity.

Velvet Goldmine pays glorious homage to Citizen Kane as well as glam itself: though the musicians have been given pseudonyms, all of the songs in the film are genuine contributions from Eno, Brian Ferry, and the like. The brilliant music-video excesses of the film are matched only by the deep, dark lows the characters face, and it feels more like a dream– and a nightmare– than any music film I’ve ever seen. A-

Why Kids Loved Pokémon (and Adults Didn’t Get It)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pokémon lately. It started when I watched The Nostalgia Critic’s takedown of Pokémon: The First Movie, and pretty soon I realized what it was that made it the cultural entity that it was.

So here’s the deal: Pokémon was originally a game for Game Boy. It had first come out in Japan in the mid-1990s before showing up in America in 1997. By the time the game had crossed the pacific, a TV show had come out based on the game, and a set of collectible trading cards based on the show. In Japan, the phenomenon had slowly built over a couple of years, but in America, all of these things came at once, and it created a massive phenomenon. It was an honest-to-god craze; the biggest thing since Star Wars.

What made Pokémon so fun to play is that it was big. The world of the video game was enormous, and there was a competetive angle: how fast could you and your friends collect all 150 species of Pokémon in the game? The Pokémon themselves were like animals with magical powers, who people caught and trained to fight each other, which is weird, but hey, it’s a video game.

The television show was a little more dubious. The main character, Ash, was originally an avatar for the kid playing the game, so the Ash on television had no personality beyond wanting to be a Pokémon master. The story was heavily serialized and slightly soap-opera-ish, although the creators of the show occasionally had some fun with the concept.

But the show was only enjoyable to people playing the game. Only they could follow along and be interested, because in a sense they were watching themselves. Plus, the Pokémon were pretty cute.

Here’s the thing: most adults at the time didn’t realize that Pokémon originated as a video game. In fact, when I told my mother I was writing this, she didn’t even remember that there was a video game. One could only look at the images on Kids WB! and think what the hell is this and why do my kids love it? Why are there a bunch of adolescents roaming around a fictionalized version of metropolitan Tokyo collecting animals so they can fight each other like pitbulls when they should be in school? Why does everything in this world revolve around this pastime? And what can I do to stop Mikey from saying “pika-pika” all the fucking time!?

The answer, it turned out, was Wizards. Harry Potter arrived in America at the same time as Pokémon, but gradually eclipsed it in popularity. It had a few advantages. One, it had actual characters. Pokémon took place in a big world, but that world was also pretty shallow. It was an okay game, maybe even a good game, but didn’t invite the kind of lasting obsession that other pop-cultural artifacts did. Harry Potter built on preexisting works like Roald Dahl and Star Wars, so kids were able to get into it without much trouble.

Second, Harry Potter’s tone evolved as its characters– and audience– grew up. Adults can still play Pokémon today; I know some who do; but there are few grown men or women who would sit down today and watch the anime series when we have Mad Men, The Americans, or Game of Thrones. And yes, the anime series is still on, now in it’s seventeenth season. By allowing itself to mature, Harry Potter was also able to last in the public consciousness, and it was palatable to parents as well as kids, which Pokémon patently wasn’t.

Third, Harry Potter took a while to become as popular as it ended up being. When I got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on my eighth birthday, I was wary of the book. I’d never heard of it. It took a couple of years to build up in the public consciousness, and JK Rowling was very protective of her property, so it was never the multimedia/merchandising orgy that Pokémon was. It’s true that Harry Potter was flawed, but only in minor ways that were common to fantasy, and it was a huge departure from the kind of kids’ stories being told at the time, which were mostly sci-fi. It even had a predetermined ending, which was extremely rare in any medium of the time.

After only three years, the Pokémon craze was done. Kids still watched it, but they also had a lot more pop phenomena to choose from. My best friend at the time was Chris Macquarrie. We met during the height of Pokémania, but we eventually moved on to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Lost, among other things. So did everyone else. And despite the renewed interest in all things ’90s, I haven’t seen any attempts, aside from those of my RA at SF State, to revive interest in Pokémon. I guess we know why.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda

Dir. Charles Crichton, 1988

It starts as a simple plan: four criminals stage a bank robbery in London, but when the English mastermind (Tom Georgeson) is turned in by his American partners (Kevin Kline and Jaime Lee Curtis), and they can’t find the loot, Curtis must seduce Georgeson’s lawyer (John Cleese) to find out where it is.

Curtis has been in a lot of great films, but always seems to be the least interesting part of them, and A Fish Called Wanda is no exception. Michael Palin’s stuttering animal nut is grating, although he does get some payoff at the end. Interestingly, Kevin Kline received a rare comedy Oscar for playing against type as a vicious, trigger-happy Anglophobe with a stupid hat, and it’s a role he makes the most of, but real credit should have gone to John Cleese, who joyfully stumbles through each comedic setpiece with his trademark awkward dignity. B-

The Ideal Sandinista!

Holy Generation-Y, Batman!

Hello, old friend.

Two years ago when I started this blog, I posted this picture of my iTunes playlists, leading Jenn Achuff (now Jenn Wilkens; congratulations!) to ask what on Earth I’d done to sully the Clash’s epic album from 1980. The answer is simple: I’m trying to find out what it was originally supposed to sound like.

Ideal Sandinista! is a variation on a game called The Twelfth Albumwhere people try to create another, lost Beatles album from 1971, using its members’ solo work from that year. It’s equal parts mixology lesson and personality test. (Note: no matter who you play the game with, the album will include “Maybe I’m Amazed.” My mom, who was around back then and should have known, expressed some surprise that it wasn’t a Beatles song.)

The Clash is one of the greatest and most important bands ever; maybe they’re not quite up there with the Beatles, but they are in the same league as Zeppelin and the Beach Boys and almost certainly above Nirvana. They were the epitome of punk, but they also transcended punk. At the time, even squares could enjoy their work, not because they’d sold out, but because their greatness was able to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested. For that we may thank the band’s other leader, Mick Jones.

Jones is the source of much of Sandinista‘s strength, but he is also the reason it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been. Both Jones and Joe Strummer were heavily influenced by another transcendent rocker, Bruce Springsteen, and when they found out that Springsteen was releasing The River as a double-album, Jones and Strummer both decided to one-up him by releasing Sandinista! as a triple album.

This clearly happened late in the making of the album, because so much of it is tedious filler. What could have been one of the greatest albums ever made was a two-and-a-half hour long mess, especially the second half. So where The Twelfth Album lets the listener put different ideas together to make a great album, Ideal Sandinista! lets you play editor and find the great album that was already there.

The first thing I did was get rid of duplicate tracks. There are four tracks on Sandinista! that are just duplicates of other songs reproduced in a headache-inducing dub style. They have to go. I also got rid of the new version of “Career Opportunities” sung by children.

This is where it gets complicated. Certain songs are obviously meant to come at the beginning or end of each side of the album. If I had to guess, I’d say the album’s lynchpin, “Police on My Back,” was originally the first track of side three. This means we must now remove five tracks that come before it and two that come after. Honestly, even pared down to a double album, there are six songs I’d still rather be without. Still, make sure each “side” is less than 27 minutes long, as that’s the maximum length a vinyl record will allow. This is my end result:

Side One
“The Magnificent Seven”
“Hitsville U.K.”
“Junco Partner”
“Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”
“Something About England”
“Rebel Waltz”

Side Two
“Somebody Got Murdered”
“One More Time”
“Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)”
Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)
“Corner Soul”
“The Sound of Sinners”

Side Three
“Police on My Back”
“Midnight Log”
“The Equaliser”
“The Call Up”
“Washington Bullets”
“Broadway”

Side Four
“Lose This Skin”
“Charlie Don’t Surf”
“Kingston Advice”
“The Street Parade”
“Version City”
“Shepherd’s Delight”

So there’s your answer, Jenn.

The_Clash_-_Sandinista!

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

broadway_danny_rose

Broadway Danny Rose

Dir. Woody Allen, 1984

In between his comedy masterpieces Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen made Broadway Danny Rose, a small, unambitious comedy of manners that wins through pure charm. Allen plays the titular Danny Rose, a former Borscht Belt comedian and now small-time talent agent responsible for the nostalgia-driven career revival of lounge singer Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte). When Canova wants his mistress (Mia Farrow) to come to his show, he gets Danny Rose to bring her as if she were Rose’s girlfriend. But first, Rose falls afoul of the mistress’ other boyfriend, a mafioso who wants him dead.

By setting the film a decade earlier than it was made, and filming in black-and-white, Woody Allen gives it a very beneficial timeless feel, which highlights the performance and comedy more than its wonderfully-dated Catskills style. Another winner from Woody Allen’s most critically acclaimed decade. A-

Carrie (1976)

SPOILER ALERT: As these reviews are of an academic nature, they may contain spoilers. Those that do feature this warning. Future reviews will try to limit spoilers for a public audience, but until then, read at your own risk.

Carrie

Dir. Brian DePalma, 1976

In the nearly four decades since it was released, Carrie has gone from low-budget lark to breakout hit to part of the classic cinema canon. Perhaps I should have kept this knowledge out of my mind when I watched this film for the first time, but I couldn’t, and came out sorely disappointed.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a girl being raised by a single mother with a horrific concept of Christianity. When she has her belated first period, she’s mocked relentlessly by her peers, causing two of the students (Amy Irving and William Katt) to cheer her up by taking her to the prom, while her biggest tormentor (Nancy Allen) plots to embarrass her at the same event. Meanwhile, Carrie’s newfound womanhood seems to extend beyond the normal– she’s also become telekinetic. The result is the now-famous bloodbath of a third act, from which only one character escapes.

Though the horror is still devastatingly effective, and director Brian De Palma nicely integrates some levity into what comes before, the majority of the film is muddled and reeks of campy after-school specials, which as a concept were only a few years old at the time. The two “good characters” played by Irving and Katt turn out to be doing the right thing, but their motives for helping Carrie are initially ambiguous, especially to someone who knows how the film will end (read: everyone). I seemed to be the only person who didn’t like this, but so be it. C