Friday, December 2, 2011

Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas

Background: The charm of The Muppets is undeniable.The lovable puppet characters created by Jim Henson have been going strong for over 50 years. Henson may have passed away in 1990 at the young age of 53, but his creations live on. To this day, if you need a quality puppet made, you go to the Henson Workshop. They've appeared in countless movies, some in starring roles (Like The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and the recently released The Muppets), but have also shown up in more unexpected places, like Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are and the affable Jason Segel movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. No matter where they are, you can always tell a Henson creation. Their big, bulging eyes, wide mouths and felt skin can be seen from a mile away.

The Muppets have always had a strong tie to Christmas. My personal favorite Christmas movie of all time is Muppet Christmas Carol. It's a yearly tradition at the top secret Depths Of Netflix headquarters to sing along with Michael Caine, Kermit and the gang and totally not be embarrassed in front of my girlfriend. Another favorite is the TV special Muppet Family Christmas which you can find on crummy DVDs if you look for it, it has Fraggles and that's pretty cool. Before all that though was Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas. And since it's December officially, I think we need a little Christmas. Right this very minute. They totally sing that song in Muppet Family Christmas, and I have a hard time not singing their lyrics instead of the real ones.

Plot: Emmet Otter starts the movie rowing a boat down a river, sharing a song with his mother and delivering laundry. Emmet and his mom are poor little otters. It's just the two of them. Emmet's dad was a Snake Oil Salesman who died a few ago. Songs are a key part of Emmet Otter's life and the charm of Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas. Another key comes from the roving group of thugs known as The Nightmare. They're first introduced careening around town in their loud car, mouthing off to the local folk and making a ruckus in the music store.

The story revolves around a talent show with a prize of $50. The time period is never really stated, but it's implied that it's a lot of money. It would be more than enough for a new guitar that Emmet has his eyes on and his mom has quite the singing voice. Emmet wants to get his mom a nice present too, so he wants to enter with his newly formed jug band. The problem is that they both want to surprise each other and in order to get ready for the show, they each have to bet big with something the other needs. Ma needs to hock Emmet's tools to buy a dress and Emmet needs to put a hole in Ma's washtub to make a bass for his new band.

The night of the show fast approaches and the band practices all day long. Emmet's mom, meanwhile is busy making her dress. At the show, the real stars are the jerks from the Nightmare who entered late but they made an exception for. Where Emmet makes fun, folksy music, those guys make heavy hitting rock and roll and the small, sleepy town eats it up. Before Emmet and the gang have their chance at the stage, someone else sings their song and they have to quickly learn another one.  The Nightmare go on to win the talent show, forcing Emmet and his Ma to come to terms with what each other have bet on the show. They end up joining their songs together and getting a job as a house act at a restaurant and everyone has a Merry Christmas.

Why Was It Forgotten? For all I said about Muppets being instantly recognizable, they really aren't in this movie. The characters are all charming and cute and the voices are unmistakable. Frank Oz and Jim Henson's voices cover just about all the main characters, some voices even sounding like the more recognizable Muppets.  To oversimplify, the character design doesn't seem quite as sophisticated here. And who could blame them? They were making puppets for a weird project on a television special with likely little broad appeal. Speaking of a lack of sophistication, let's talk about walking. Walking Muppets have never looked great when the camera's zoomed out and you get to see their feet, but here it looks like some weird lock-kneed goose-step usually. Not quite there yet.

What Went Right? The music is some of my favorite music of any Muppet project. Which is saying something because the Muppets have always had great music. Though the story revolves around Christmas, the music is just good folk inspired music. It may just be the fact that I've seen this dozens of times, but the music really sticks with you. The story is earnest and the characters are fun, though it is fairly short so you don't spend as much time with them as you may like. For a Christmas special though, it's exactly what you look for.

Verdict: Come for the otters, stay for the music
Score: 90%

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today's regularly scheduled Depths Of Netflix has been preempted by pumpkin pie. Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving and will celebrate glorious capitalism on today, the blackest of Fridays. I'd say support small business, but I just ordered a large TV from Amazon, so y'know.

See you all Monday!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gunfighter (1998)

Background: The Coppola family is one of the most prolific in the world of cinema. Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most respected directors ever, still making great movies to this day (See Tetro, it's fantastic). His son, Roman did special effects work for his dad's underrated Bram Stoker's Dracula and has directed a bunch of music videos. His sister is Sofia Coppola, who's becoming quite the director in her own right. Francis' sister, Talia Shire is best known as Adrian from the Rocky series and she was also in The Godfather, as Connie. Her son is actor and sometimes drummer Jason Schwartzman, who has done great work in Wes Anderson's movies, among others. And we can't forget Francis' nephew/lunatic Nicolas Coppola, known to you and me as Nicolas Cage. His brother, Christopher is the director of today's movie, Gunfighter. That just about covers it, I think.

The movie stars Robert Carradine, who also comes from a prolific hollywood family. He is the son of John Carradine and half brother of David. At his side is Martin Sheen. Sheen, of course worked with Christopher's uncle Francis on Apocalypse Now where he had a heart attack. He bet big that it was just a fluke thing and not some sort of Coppola Curse that doomed him to suffering bodily harm on ever Coppola movie. Lucky guy. Sheen comes from yet another acting family (I'm getting tired of this) with his sons Charlie Sheen, who has been in the news lately, and Emilio Estevez. Rounding out the family is Martin's brother Joe Estevez, the less said about him the better.

Plot: Robert Carradine plays a country singer who shows up at a dark, dusty bar for a gig. The bar is completely empty though, save for a player piano and Martin Sheen. Sheen is a mysterious bearded stranger with black gloves with a shiny star on them. So shiny in fact that Carradine asks, incredulously, how he got them that way. Turns out the gloves used to belong to the fasted gunslinger in the west. They might have some magical properties that make whoever wears them a better, faster shot, but that's never really elaborated upon. The scenes in this bar between Carradine and Sheen act as a framing device for the real meat of the movie, which is the story of those gloves.

The main story involves two main characters. Hopalong Cassidy (No official word on whether or not this is supposed to be the Hopalong Cassidy or just some weird coincidence) is the infallible hero. He wears a white hat, has a pretty, though weirdly scrawny, horse and wears Martin Sheens' gloves. Tex, however, is the exact opposite. He's sometimes known as The Man In Black, he has a beard and is unmistakably evil. Cassidy humiliated him ages ago in a showdown and all Tex wants is revenge.

Tex learns Cassidy is in town and has ordered some cattle from the Bar 20 ranch. So he burns it down and murders a few of the employees. He also captures a pretty lady. That story plays out exactly how you'd expect without a shred of moral ambiguity, no unforeseen plot complications and very little excitement from the cast or the viewer. By the end, little was explained about the gloves, who Martin Sheen actually was (I think it's implied that he was a ghost?), or where my 90 some minutes went.

Why Was It Fogotten? It becomes painfully clear fairly early that not every Coppola can direct a movie. The acting is awful almost across the board. Sheen and Carradine aren't really in it long enough to make much of a difference. The only other actor of any note is Clu Gulager, a character actor who has appeared in a lot of westerns in the old days. He kept his career going through the 80s by  turning to horror movies. He also doesn't have a lot of time to make an impact. The plot is rote and told completely straight, it sometimes feels like it's supposed to more intentionally cheesy, but that might just be me. It also looks terrible, but now it just feels like I'm piling on.

What Went Right? There's a good idea for a movie in here. Using the framing device of Martin Sheen telling a classic western story with magical twists could have been really neat. Just look at The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Sure, that was a wildly unpopular show, but it's very well remembered these days for its mixture of western traditions and supernatural craziness. All this movie needed to be tolerable was a tongue in cheek attitude, but this movie just couldn't find it. Okay, this movie probably needed a lot more than that, but that would have been a good start.

Verdict: There are a lot of other Coppolas you should check out first.
Score: 10%

Friday, November 18, 2011

Silver Streak (1976)

Background: Today I'm taking over for the usual man behind the Depths to talk about a film that's close to my heart (these reviews aren't supposed to be completely unbiased, are they?). I saw Silver Streak on TV a few years ago and got completely wrapped up in it, and ended up buying the DVD. It only has 53 reviews on Netflix, which is surprising considering the fact that it's the first film that featured the golden team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor together. They went on to make several more movies together and have come to be considered one of the great comedy teams o the era. Oh, and the movie was directed by Arther Hiller, who also did Love Story, in case that means something to you (you know, "Love means never having to say you're sorry").

Plot: All over the place. This might turn some people off, particularly one or two Netflix reviewers who were pulling their hair out over the genre dilemma ("Is it a comedy? A murder mystery? A road movie? A buddy movie? A romantic comedy? WHAT!?") but I personally thought it was entertaining. The basic plot line is that Gene Wilder is on a train for a business trip and in the middle of seducing--or being seduced by--Jill Claybourgh when he sees a murdered man fall off the train outside his window. This leads him on a jaunty quest to solve the murder mystery, which involves him falling/being pushed off the train multiple times, striving to get back on it to save Claybourgh, and finally meeting up with Pryor for some comedic gold. Spoiler: there's a happy ending for everyone but the bad guys. Even the train is smiling at the end.

Why was it forgotten? It's a fun romp but even with Wilder and Pryor, I imagine it's hard for this film to be taken very seriously. It's basically a poor man's North by Northwest. Also, I can't say the suspense that's promised on the pictured DVD cover is really all that thrilling. Take it from someone who jumps while watching Halloween specials on the Disney channel (what? I have siblings): the murder mystery part of this movie is not very scary. Then again, it doesn't really need to be.

What went right? It doesn't take itself too seriously, and personally I'm a huge fan of pretty much anything Wilder does. Also, while some might complain about the film's inability to stick to one genre, I think the mashup is what makes it so much fun. It's definitely more of a comedy than anything else, but it has just the right amount of romance and shoot outs.

Verdict: Easy fun, worth watching just for Wilder and Pryor.
Score: 85%

Monday, November 14, 2011

Flakes (2007)

Background: I don't think lead actress Zooey Deschanel really needs much introduction. She's the sister from Almost Famous, Summer from 500 Days of Summer and you cannot legally mention her or any of her roles without using the word "Quirky." Her big blue eyes and singing voice that outclasses her acting by a damn mile have made her a staple of the dreams of hipster men nationwide. She also has a show on Fox called The New Girl that I know absolutely nothing about. Her sister, Emily Deschanel, has a show on Fox too, Bones, about which I know very little more. I don't mean to sound dismissive because I really actually like Zooey Deschanel and have watched movies specifically because she's in them, though I'll never forgive her for Yes Man.

Slightly less well known is Michael Lehmann, director of today's film. He's had quite an odd career. He's spent a lot of time directing TV shows. Though this usually means that the best one can hope for from the direction is "workmanlike," he's spent most of his time on more cinematic shows, usually on premium cable. His movie work is also pretty interesting. His first feature length credit is Heathers, a favorite among some. His cult hits don't stop there, he also made Airheads, a personal favorite of mine. Then again, he also directed Hudson Hawk

Plot: As the manager of a restaurant that serves only cereal, Neil Downs feels slightly unsatisfied. He's a budding musician with writer's block, a cereal enthusiast and boyfriend to Zooey Deschanel, whose quirky character (sorry, just fulfilling my duty) changed her name to Miss Pussy Katz on her 18th birthday. The restaurant is called "Flakes," naturally and it's owned by Willie, a constantly pajama clad Christopher Lloyd. Other characters haunting the cereal bar include an amateur cereal historian and a man that just loves hats. He's apparently bad with their names though because he refers to a Deerstalker hat as a Deerslayer hat. This is never acknowledged. One day a business man comes in to Flakes and starts asking questions about franchising.

Turns out the businessman was just pumping them for information. His plan was to open up a new cereal joint right across the street called "New Original Flakes." This, of course, tanks at first. It's too clean, there's no atmosphere, etc. Everyone loves the old Flakes, why would they go to the cheap knockoff. Well, after a fight, Zooey goes to work there and gives it the atmosphere people crave. It's not clear why all the old regulars jump ship and go across the street to their beloved hangout's rival, but that happens.

This causes Flakes business to go down the tubes. Zooey figures this should give Neil more time to work on his album, but writers block is fickle (trust me) and all it does is make him frustrated. The plot has exactly zero moments that you don't see coming from the first moment the business man enters Flakes for the first time. That's not always a bad thing, but in this case, it certainly doesn't help.

Why Was It Forgotten? It's very hard for an indie movie to break through to the mainstream. Especially when the movie is as obtusely quirky as this one. When you think of movies of this ilk that the general population have embraced, like say Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, it can be hard to tell why those two are popular while no one cared about this one. It has well known names like Little Miss Sunshine, Zooey Deschanel and Christopher Lloyd in place of Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and the like. It has highly quirky characters like Juno, cereal and hat enthusiast stand in for the fast talking teens.

While those movies certainly have their fair share of problems, what they had was likable characters. Well, to a point at least. I thought Juno was a really terrible character and everyone in Little Miss Sunshine was just kinda boring, but they didn't hold the terrible opinions and make the awful decisions of the characters here. Especially those of the main character Neil. A main character that is impossible to like makes the movie hard to bear.

What Went Right? Christopher Lloyd is always a treat. He may be older and much more haggard these days, but when he gets worked up, it's just like the old days with Doc Brown in Back To The Future. Zooey Deschanel is also adorable as always, though her character doesn't really have personality. She does have moments though where she's funny. Makes me think I should check out that show, but chancres are I never will and I know that.

Verdict: Well, at least it's not Juno.
Score: 38%

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tekwar (1994)

Background: Imagine yourself as William Shatner on the set of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. You're getting way too old to play the dashing ladies man Captain James Tiberius Kirk, but you need a paycheck so you're doing it anyway. By this time, Star Trek: The Next Generation has been on TV for years. You've been replaced Captain of the USS Enterprise for an entire generation of young nerds. You've been going to conventions for decades, being hounded for autographs by millions of people who want nothing more than to correct you about some piece of Star Trek lore that you misspoke about at last year's convention. You probably want to break free from that whole world right? Maybe create your own sci-fi future nonsense? Well, in 1989, Shat did that.

In 1989, Shatner decided it was time to break out the… whatever existed before computers. Abacus? Anyway, he wrote a book called Tekwar. Then he wrote another book, TekLords. He's pumped out nine of these bad boys in total, all with "Tek" in the title somewhere. These books have been made into movies, a TV show, a series of comic books, and a pretty crummy looking video game. If you ask around the right circles, Tekwar is famous, but around the Netflix circle, it's lost. Why no love for the Shat?

Plot: There is a whole ton of plot here, as is often the problem when a book is made into a movie. There are right ways and wrong ways to do adapt a novel. You can choose to tell a stripped down story in detail, or you can briefly cover everything that happened in the book. This bets big on the latter. First thing's first. Tek is a new drug out on the streets. It's the microchip thing that when plugged into this little headset, lets you see in virtual reality. I'm not sure what makes one have to buy more of it though. Seems like a microchip is more than a one use thing.

Jake Cardigan is a cop who got thrown in cryo-prison. Sorta like John Spartan in the much better movie Demolition Man. He, of course, was framed. It's never really explained too well what happened, but there was a Tek deal, people think he paid off the bad guys, other cops got killed. Bad stuff, you know. He's looking for his wife and son, she left him while he was frozen. He goes to some hackers who are super annoying to try and find them. The computers are really secure though and they have to fly through hologram cyberspace to get through. I guess this is supposed to be tense, but it makes so little sense that it's hard to feel anything except confusion.

Speaking of confusion, the rest of the movie is some of the most confusing stuff I've ever watched. I'm sure that if one really tried, it wouldn't be too hard to follow, but there's just way too much plot for 90 minutes. There are TekLords like Sonny Hokori who control all the Tek. There's Shatner who runs a corporation that has a way to destroy the world's supply of Tek. Hokori's brand of Tek would be immune though. This seems like it should be the crux of the movie, but very little thought is given to it. There's also the eco-terrorist/Jakes ex-girlfriend Warbride. I can't make head or tails out of her involvement. There's a robot hitting snapshots at Jake in a hockey arena. I dunno, maybe the book makes more sense.

Why Was It Forgotten? The key to great sci-fi is telling a good story that works when you take all the spaceships and cyberpunk out. Take Star Trek for example. What made it stand out certainly wasn't the great acting and superior special effects. People loved that show because of the way the characters interacted and worked out the myriad of problems they were faced with every week. The recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica was so well respected because it would work if it were on Earth and there were no robots. This wouldn't work like that at all. Take away all the future mumbo jumbo and you have a really really boring, uncreative story. The only parts that are even a little interesting are just incredibly confusing.

The other fun part of Sci-Fi are the predictions it makes about the future. It's always neat to go back even just 15-20 years when this came out to see what they thought the near future was gonna be like. This movie gets shockingly few of them right. Sure, this movie takes place another 30 odd years from where we are today, but still. For just one example, money is transferred between people by linking up these personal devices about the size of a deck of cards. The way things are going with Near Field Communication and Bluetooth, there's no way anything will ever come in contact with anything ever again.

What Went Right? No part of this movie is particularly bad. Sure parts of it are dated and none of the future drug nonsense makes a whole lot of sense, but if you want to lose yourself in a world, there is a ton of information to lose yourself in. I think that's why there's still a small, but very loyal following around Tekwar. Outside the novels of Neil Stephenson, there's really not a whole lot of quality cyberpunk. Actually, you know what? There might be, I really have no idea. None of it has the name "William Shatner" on it though.

Verdict: There's a whole bunch of Tekwar movies on Netflix. I don't think I'll watch more of them
Score: 25%

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Background: Sydney Poitier and Michael Caine ain't gonna play Sun City. It's safe to say that in 1975 Aparthied wasn't very popular around the globe. Enter The Wilby Conspiracy, a novel by Peter Driscoll turned into a film by acclaimed director Ralph Nelson. Nelson had previously directed the adaptation of Flowers For Algernon, Charly, which I watched in 8th grade English class and remember almost nothing about as a film. Most people would know him best for directing Lilies Of The Field, for which Sydney Poitier won the Best Leading Man Academy Award, the first African American man to do so. With two well known leading men, an equally well known director, and even a young Rutger Hauer in there being Rutger Hauer, it's hard to imagine this film getting lost to the ages, right?

Plot: Poitier starts out the film as a mere number, 34. A political prisoner in apartheid era South Africa, full name Shack Twala, incarcerated for a decade already, he stands trial to possibly spend even more time in prison due to a new law that prosecutes terrorists. He gets off the hook thanks to a pretty young lawyer named Rina Van Niekerk (These South African names are murder). To celebrate, she offers to take Twala and her boyfriend, James Keogh (Michael Caine) back to her office for champagne.
On the way there, shit gets real, they get stopped by the cops who say Twala can't be on the street. Because of racism. The cops cuff him and commence whaling on him because of racism. Twala and Keogh don't think this should happen, because they're the good guys and begin whaling on the cops back. They put the cops in the hospital, have to run away for obvious reasons, and the movie is underway.
They decide they need to make their way across the border to Botswana for safe haven. Along the way, it comes out that Twala is a member of the Black Congress, a group that helps blacks fight for freedom against the imperialist whites. At the head of this organization is the eponymous Wilby Xaba. The South African Bureau of State Security wants to capture Wilby, and now they have some unwitting patsies that will lead Major Horn, leader of the bureau, straight to him.
Along the way, the movie gets lost in some side plots with diamonds and Indian dentists that I won't give too much away about. Racism and getting lost in plot twists are the two leading themes of this movie.

Why Was It Forgotten? Apartheid was a total bummer, and that might have something to do with it. The main thing about apartheid is that it doesn't exist anymore, thus dating a few early episodes of The Simpsons where Lisa has an "End Apartheid Now" poster on the door to her room, also abolishing violent, deplorable segregation in South Africa. A movie that graphically shows the consequences of apartheid doesn't really play in this day and age. Also the movie only saw a limited release in North America and Netflix only services the U.S. and Canada. It has been released on region 1 DVD though, and the more global IMDb shows an almost equal amount of apathy.

What Went Right? Poitier and Caine show a playful, Lethal Weapon, anti-buddy relationship that is really fun to watch through the entire movie. The dialogue is consistently snappy, as in this quote from Caine: "A politically commited Indian dentist? That sounds like all the people I can't stand at a cocktail party!" It's unfortunate that Poitier is shackled (bad word choice, I guess) with a tricky native African accent that reigns in his performance hard. There are also a few genuinely exciting set pieces, one with a giant sinkhole, another with a bunch of planes, that keep the action going.

Verdict: It might get a little lost, but overall a pretty enjoyable watch.
Score: 80%