RetroReviews #40: AquaMarine (2006)

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JUNE 25, 2013 SCREENING: AQUAMARINE (2006)

 

 

 

  • WARNING: This film should not be viewed by anyone with a Y chromosome.

 

 

Such a label doesn’t exist on the DVD cover for this film, but in my opinion, it should. Aquamarine may simply be a fantasy comedy on paper, but more than anything else, this is a chick flick. Worse, it’s a teenybopper chick flick – it’s target audience is basically females between the ages of 8-14, to the point where its cutesy themes about finding the perfect guy for a lonely mermaid girl will cause most adult males to get physically ill. If you haven’t noticed, I didn’t have a fun time watching this movie, but even so, I’m going to put aside my own personal dislike of the approach and subject matter, and try to evaluate the film fairly.

 

 

Aquamarine is about two 13 year old girls (played by Emma Roberts and JoJo, looking older than their characters ages) who discover a real life Mermaid (played by Sara Paxton in a perky performance). The Mermaid, named Aquamarine, tells them that she swam away from her underwater kingdom because he father was going to force her to enter into an arranged marriage with a merman she doesn’t like, so the girls resolve to help her find true love with a human guy.

 

 

As is the case with Splash (and I think this film was directly “inspired” by that, since I doubt you can find this as any part of traditional mermaid mythology), Aquamarine’s fins magically turn into legs when she’s on land during the day. At night, the girls actually come up with something pretty clever: they hide her away in the city’s water tower, and this becomes an important subplot later on when she’s discovered swimming away at night.

 

 

Of course, the film has a happy ending where Aquamarine gets the guy and thanks her new found human friends by giving them starfish earnings. I breathed a sigh of relief when this silly film was over, but from an objective standpoint, it actually does many of its elements better than Splash did. The jokes often work better, the love story is more interesting, the back-story on the mermaid is fleshed out more, the mermaid special effects look better, the conflict with human society discovering the mermaid is more dramatic (unlike Splash where she’s caught and put in observation tank briefly towards the end of the film). The only part that seemed weaker to me was this film actually duplicates the same “Mermaid girl caught in a bathtub with fins” scene from Splash, only this time she hides her true identity by having another girl duck underneath the tub water and kick her legs over the side of tub (huh? Who takes a bath and hangs both legs outside the tub while bathing?) Of course, the main drawback is Splash is a mostly family friendly but from an adult point of view, whereas Aquamarine is clearly aimed at female preteens and makes no attempt to expand its world to anyone else. This film probably would have worked best as a special on the Disney channel.

 

 

Thus, as much as it sickens me, I actually have to give Aquamarine a slightly higher rating than Splash, because I thought it did a better job at exploring the same concept, regardless of the fact it exists to entertain 12 year old girls. The little teenybopper in your life will adore this movie. For anyone else, avoid any opportunity to screen Aquamarine. Remember, I warned you.

 

 

 

 

** ½ out of ****

 

RetroReviews #39: Splash (1984)

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JUNE 24, 2013 SCREENING: SPLASH (1984)

Ah, the classic 1984 fantasy film Splash. How I loathe you. Well, it’s not that I hate this movie, but the movie is responsible for something I can’t stand. Prior to the release of Splash, the word “Madison” was place name used in honor of our fourth President, James Madison, rather than a first name for girls (as Tom Hanks rightfully points out in the movie) But the Mermaid in the film doesn’t have a human name, so she adapts the name “Madison” after Madison Ave. in New York. 30 years later, a bunch of other women decided it would make a cute name for their daughters as well. Damn you, Splash.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to rate the movie based on this bizarre side effect. Let’s take a look at the film in its own right. Splash is not a bad movie, but I would argue it’s not a very good one, either. There are parts of it that I liked, and parts that I didn’t like. First and foremost, the film is a romantic comedy. That part works. Tom Hanks, as a human named Allen, and Daryl Hannah as “Madison” the Mermaid, have some great chemistry together and the film is breezy, charming, and sweet. There is some nice one-liners from John Candy as the buddy, and the mermaid jokes work – like when Daryl Hannah starts screeching dolphin-like sounds and shatters TV’s when Tom Hanks asks what her name is in her own native language, or when she starts consuming a whole lobster at a restaurant, tail and all.

What didn’t work for me is the fantasy part of the story, and the mermaid angle. The basic premise is that her bottom half turns into human legs when she’s on land (presumably she must magically get a vagina on land too, since we see her naked from behind a few times and she has a butt when she’s on land). This felt like a cop-out to me, and I don’t think the film was following any traditional mythology of mermaids. If mermaids can magically turn human on land, do humans turn into mermaids when they enter the mermaid kingdom? The end of the movie seems to imply they do, since Tom Hanks goes off to live underwater with Daryl Hannah forever, and I doubt he could breathe that long. Most of the “turns human on land” stuff was used for comic relief and subplots where Tom Hanks tries to hide Madison and avoid getting her wet (apparently merely being splashed by water will turn her legs back into fish fins), and the only time I felt it really made the film interesting is when she was desperately trying to dry herself after taking a bath in his house. I also felt that Madison adjusted to human life far too easily, and it wasn’t believable for me that she has no problem interacting with humans in normal conversations and going about shopping around New York if she’s spent her whole life underwater. The Little Mermaid handled the same issues far better just five years later, and it was a kid’s cartoon (albeit a very high budget, state of the art one), and it gave us a valid reason why she had legs on land.

Interesting enough, this film got enormously popular reviews, and enjoys a 92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What’s bizarre is the audience rating – its much lower and only 58% of audiences gave it a positive rating, so not even 3/5ths of viewers. Usually, the opposite is true (general audiences tend to be much more forgiving of films and easily entertained than professional critics are) I wonder if there’s some kind of breakdown where women liked it and men didn’t? I would personally rate Splash as nominally “positive”, though it wasn’t what I wanted and I’ve seen other Romantic Comedies that much more exciting and witty than this one. Another interesting note from all this is that Roger Ebert was one of only three critics on Rotten Tomatoes that gave Splash a negative review when it came out. He found Tom Hanks to be weak as the male lead. I thought Hanks was good here, but obviously he didn’t find his true calling until he moved away from silly comedies like this during the 90s. Although its a romantic comedy (95% of which are pretty much targeted to females), it’s also not exclusively a “chick film” –after all, the movie is from Tom Hanks’ POV, and there’s plenty here that guys can enjoy. I just ultimate felt unsatisfied and didn’t feel the film gave me what I wanted. I spent much more time learning about John Candy’s problems than I did about the culture and world that Daryl Hannah came from. For a movie that is built around how a human and a mermaid can have a life together, that’s simply unforgivable. Fun, cute, and watchable film? Yes. Good, worthwhile, intelligent film? Nope.

** out of ****

RetroReviews #38: Night Tide (1961)

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JUNE 22, 2013 SCREENING: NIGHT TIDE (1961)

During my fantasy film marathon, I decided to take a look at a trilogy of mermaid themed movies: Night Tide (1961), Splash (1984), and Aquamarine (2006). They’re all pretty decent stuff, although they weren’t like I was looking for and didn’t really explore the world of these mythological creatures like I hoped. All together, it made me realize that I’d be much happier watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) again, or even Mermaids (1990) even though the latter film has nothing to do with Mermaids besides the title. So how did my three mermaid films stack up? Let’s take a look.

Night Tide is an ultra low budget, black-and-white film starring Dennis Hopper in one of his early roles. It’s the only one of the three movies that didn’t focus on romance, and film is generally classified as a mystery/thriller. The tone of the film is really what sets it apart though. Everything is in a sort of dark, cloudy, ominous setting, with lots of strange sound effects and music cues. It’s been called a “mood piece” and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The dialogue and story are not so much important, as the type of tone the movie sets.

The story itself is actually quite similar to the Cat People films. Of course, I’d consider those movies more enjoyable because they had a unique type of creature not seen in other cinematic stories (namely, werecats) and they were much more direct and pointed with how the film unfolded its mystery story. Night Tide gets you into its strange little world, but it can really drag at times, and seems to pointless during certain scenes. Much of the dialogue is forgettable and mundane, although the premise is intriguing – Mora “The Mermaid” on display at the local cardinal sideshow may in fact be a real mermaid, as she believes herself to a descendant of sirens who is only now living life as a human, and confides in Johnny Drake (Dennis Hooper) that she is terrified the sirens will come back to claim her.

The 84 minute movie seems to go on forever, though. Dennis Hooper appeared in a similar type of story during his early career, playing a brash young neo-NAZI who meets a mysterious shadowy figure that advises him in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “He’s Alive”. That was one of the rare hour-long Twilight Zone episodes during the show’s fourth season, and Night Tide could have easily worked as one of the hour long Twilight Zone episodes. That’s not to say I was keen on the format, just that this particular film was well suited for it.

Night Tide was directed by Curtis Harrington, who Wikipedia claims was a pioneer of “New Queer Cinema”. I have no idea what that is, and something tells me the term probably didn’t even exist when I went to film school a decade ago. In any case, I doubt there was any “hidden” gay or lesbian themes in Night Tide, it seemed like a fairly conventional relationship between Johnny and Mora, as far as early 60s films go, and there were no romantic elements (which I grew to appreciate after viewing the next couple of mermaid movies). Supposedly there is now a “restored” version of the movie, but the version I watched on DVD looked like someone found some 8mm film at a garage sale, and you can tell the film had a budget of only $25,000. It is mostly forgotten today, but its easily available online for free, and can be seen it its entirety on YouTube.

The film stands out for a fairly unique story about a mermaid and having an interesting approach to it (especially given the lack of any other such mermaid themed movies in 1961), so I think it deserves a positive review. Of course, when it comes to how enjoyable it actually is to sit through, and whether it has any lasting impact, I would be much more hesitant to sing the film’s praises. It is what it is, and I applaud the fact the film exists and tries to be innovative.

** ½ out of ****

RetroReviews #37: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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JUNE 20, 2013 SCREENING: HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

The last (but not least) of the three Hayao Miyazaki movies I screened was Howl’s Moving Castle. In terms of quality, it actually falls somewhere between the other two movies, making it a nice median choice if you’re looking to check out his work in anime. It’s not the beautiful and charming masterpiece that Spirited Away is, but it’s also not the dark and macabre dreamworld that Princess Mononoke is. Rather, we get different aspects from each: this movie is mostly fun and breezy, and humorous like Spirited Away, but it comes across as a bizarre, random series of events that make no sense, as was the case for Princess Mononoke. I thought the film was enormously creative, and kept my interest throughout, but once it was over, I sat there stunned, going “What the HECK just happened?”

I can give you the basic premise and storyline, but that won’t help much. Early in the film, a sweet innocent 18 year old girl has a spell cast on her by an evil witch, and becomes a stocky little 81 year old woman. She spends the rest of the movie trying to undo the curse. Of course, the film lives up to its title by having a character named Howl and he does indeed have a moving castle (which gets up and walks around at various points in the movie), but don’t expect any of these elements to work in the standard narrative format that you’re used to. At some points in the movie, the main character even appears to revert back to a young woman, only to become old again, and why exactly that happened or what the movie was trying to saying or how it was advancing its plot, I have no idea.

As is the case with Miyazaki’s other movies, Disney distributed the English language version and gave us an all star cast to Americanize it. Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, and Blythe Danner are among the stars that lent their voices to the English language version (apparently, Bale did so simply because he liked the idea, and agreed to play any character from the start). This film also has something unique because it was the first and only time where I felt an “Americanized” version of a Japanese anime character went beyond trying to make sense of Japanese culture, but took it to a new level as a charming character in his own right. Billy Crystal voices Calcifer, which is a self-aware taking flame (complete with eyes and mouth) and I felt he really elevated it to something new and made the character his own.

I’m giving Howl’s Moving Castle a positive rating and review for one simply reason: I found it to be fun and thoroughly entertaining. The story made no sense, the characters (aside from Billy Crystal’s talking fire) didn’t work for me, I don’t think it represented the British novel it was adapting very well at all, but in spite of all that, I loved it. Damn it, weird Japanese movie, you won me over.

*** out of ****

RetroReviews #36: Spirited Away (2001)

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JUNE 19, 2013 SCREENING: SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

At last, I’ve gotten a chance to review the best known and most beloved of Hayao Miyazaki‘s films, 2001’s Spirited Away. It has the unusual honor of being a foreign language film that won Best Animated Film at the Oscars in 2002, and critics all over the United States were raving about this movie, giving it four stars, calling it a masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever made, etc. etc., It was also a box office hit for American audiences, despite having very little marketing to drive interest in the film, and mostly relied on buzz after it won an Oscar (of course, the fact Walt Disney Pictures again did the English language version might have helped the movie, of course!)

As for me, I’m not going to take the approach here that I did with How to Train Your Dragon – where I hated a movie that was universally beloved by audiences and critics alike. For the most part, I completely agree that this was the greatest of Miyazaki’s films, and is beautifully animated and wonderfully charming movie. It is very much the Japanese equivalent to Alice in Wonderland. In fact, may be somewhat better from an emotional standpoint, since it has some wonderful character moments for the Chihiro (the little girl protagonist in this story) where she learns important lessons about life, moreso than anything that was in Lewis Carroll’s Alice (although on a personal standpoint, I still prefer Alice over this). Where I’m going to disagree with most of the professional critics is that is a “must see” movie that everyone can enjoy, and a universally beloved children’s classic.

As is the case with the other Miyazaki films I watched, Spirited Away can be enjoyed in its own right as a zany fantasy adventure film, but to truly understand the themes and ideas presented in the film, you have to understand Japanese culture. As a college educated adult that has some familiarity with different elements Japanese culture after years of learning different things, I still felt like I didn’t “get” roughly 70% of the character situations and settings in this film. It is very hard for any American to really grasp the significance of things in a movie that takes place at a Japanese bathhouse, and one in a fantasy world where its customers are unclean spirits. The main character also spends most of the movie befriending a monster called No-Face – a being that basically consists of a large black blob which consumes souls while wearing a white face mask. Needless to say, it is a completely bizarre concept to western audiences, no matter how much the movie tries to explain it in English. Some of the scenes may actually be upsetting for young American children (I’m thinking 7 and under), although there are plenty of cute moments as well, and some of the humor still works well in translation.

Spirited Away is overall a fantastic movie that really needs to be seen to be appreciated, as my review can’t even begin to scratch the surface or explain the story. If I was going to add one anime film to my collection, it would probably have to be this one, just from the standpoint of a movie that I can watch over and over again. But Spirited Away is still a very Japanese film at heart, and I know plenty of people that would actually be turned off by this movie, film it to be incoherent nonsense or grotesque scenes for a children’s movie. Sorry, critics, this one isn’t for everyone. But for those of you who can appreciate it for what it is, you will discover this is the cream of the crop for Japanese anime.

*** ½ out of ****

RetroReviews #35: Princess Mononoke (1997)

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JUNE 18, 2013 SCREENING: PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

I watched Princess Mononoke months before writing this review, although if I had watched the movie just five minutes ago, it wouldn’t help me try to summarize the plot. I’m not really into anime films (which I’m sure is blasphemy to all your hardcore anime fans out there), and one of the reasons why is don’t really make a lot of sense to an American audience. For Princess Mononoke, this is both a blessing and a curse. It was the the first of three I filmed that were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. (who is sort of the Walt Disney of Japanese animated films). It wasn’t the best of the three, but it was certainly the weirdest. That’s really saying something, since the other two made no sense, either. Even watching the English dubbed version with a very big name American cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, and Jade Pickett Smith are among those lending their voices to the American release), it still didn’t change the very Japanese tone of the entire film. It’s part of the film’s charm, and its also part of the reason why the film is largely inaccessible to westerners.

The basic plot has something to do with a warthog becoming infested with a demon-god thing, to the point where they have to slay the creature and remove its head, but then it gets mad and grows into a giant rampaging monster until they are able to summon the spirit of the forest, find the severed head, and return to the creature so that all returns to normal (this is the climax of the movie, to saying nothing of the two hours that lead up to those events). Make sense yet? Like many Japanese films, I was thoroughly entertained and it kept my attention, but the story seemed to be like one of those crazy dreams you have, where random nonsensical things are strung together into some crazy story that makes no sense when you wake up. I have to wonder what Japanese audiences think of the storylines from our movies, because it seems only films like Being John Malkovich would fit their narrative style.

It’s a fun movie, although its probably way too violent for what we consider to be a “children’s film” in the United States, and its strange how Disney bought the rights to Miyazaki’s movies and tried to Americanize them for their U.S. release. I don’t think the English translation really works. For example, the title, “Princess Mononoke” would make us think that this is name of the princess, but the Japanese word “mononoke” is actually a term for a type of spirit or monster, so more accurately, the film would be “the spirit princess” in English. An alternate translation they considered for this movie was “The Legend of Ashitaka”, which still doesn’t make sense, but probably conveys what you’re in for, more than “Princess Mononoke” does.

The film is a worthwhile experience, but its a real life example of “Lost in Translation”. To truly understand the allegory, themes, and ideas presented in the film, you have to be deeply familiar with Japanese culture and mythology. No amount of creative editing or translating will change that fact.

*** out of ****

RetroReviews #34: The Fall (2006)

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JUNE 17, 2013 SCREENING: THE FALL (2006)

If nothing else, The Fall (2006) is unique. It’s not a good idea to throw that word around lightly, since even the most innovative films tend to draw on plots and formats you’ve seen before. However, I think it’s justified in this case. The film is based on even more obscure 1981 Bulgarian film named Yo Ho Ho (which I haven’t seen), but The Fall is an low budget English language film was entirely self-funded by director Tarsem Singh. It was filmed over a period of four years, in 20 different countries, and wasn’t even released in the United States until 2008, despite premiering at a film festival in 2006. Whether you like the film or not, it’s quite an accomplishment that The Fall even exists.

The movie uses a surreal type of storytelling, so I sat through the whole movie and was thoroughly confused what direction it was going, and you probably will be as well. That being said, the movie differs from other surrealist films (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Seventh Seal, etc.) because there is a legitimate reason given in this film for its oddball universe. In the case of The Fall, the framing story is about a Hollywood stunt man named Roy (Lee Pace) who is severely wounded and bedridden during World War I. He meets another patient at the hospital, a young foreign girl, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) who is recovering from a broken arm. He wants her to leave him alone at first, but since she is bored, he finally agrees to tell her an ongoing adventure story. Unfortunately, the story is just a manipulative device that the man uses to trick the young child into stealing morphine for him, convincing her that needs it to continue telling the story.

Since Roy is improvising and making it up as he goes along, the adventure story within takes on a bizarre, dream-like quality. Eventually, Roy inserts himself and the young girl as characters in the story, and the actors play duel roles as both the people in the hospital, and their counterparts in Roy’s imaginary world. Towards the end of the film, Alexandria awakens to find Roy gone, and it seemed as if the film was just going to reveal he died of a morphine overdose (which would have been a suitably depressing ending to tie up the events). Instead, it turned out he had been receiving a placebo, and confesses to the girl that the story was a made up fantasy and he only kept it going to convince her to get him more drugs. She insists he continue the story, so he angrily changes the direction of the story and kills off all the characters. She begins to cry, and finally he lets her insert her own touches on his story, and she takes things in a more positive direction.

The strange fantasy story that Roy told Alexandria never really worked for me, but I suspect that’s the point. Parts of it are interesting, and parts of it drag and go nowhere, although the art direction and costumes are always nice. The framing story set in the real world was a mixed bag as well: sometimes the adult and child actor share some wonderful chemistry and character moments, other times the girl’s accent gets grating, her nagging really begins to wear down the film, and Roy is such a manipulative sleazebag its hard to feel sympathy for him. Although this film has been one of the most unusual films I’ve ever reviewed, if I must compare it to something, I can recall 2005’s Tideland, which was also a fantasy-adventure story about a young girl dealing with a drug addict (in the case of Tideland, her parents were on heroin) and escaping into her own magical adventure stories she dreamed up in her head. Tideland approached the idea entirely differently, but I found it to be much more engaging than The Fall (and just thinking about it makes me want to review Tideland sometime)

But in spite of the fact that The Fall can be boring, annoying, and it seemingly goes nowhere (the ending to me wasn’t even a proper ending), I still liked it. Its flaws are overcome by its boldness and totally fresh cinematic approach. I don’t regret watching it, and I even feel like I should watch it again because perhaps I missed something the first time around. If you’re looking for a cinematic masterpiece, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a creative concept for a film, give it a shot.

*** out of ****