“Toys” (1992)

November 17, 2008

Robin Williams and his tiny mechanical friends.

Robin Williams and his tiny mechanical friends.

 

Now here is a movie time forgot, isn’t it?

Toys (1992) seems to have fallen into obscurity after it’s brief success on VHS. After having seen it, I can certainly understand why. This unusual Robin Williams movie is both spectacular and puerile at the same time. It excels heavily in terms of art direction and sheer visual novelty. From what I understand, it was even nominated for an Oscar for the set design.  At the same time, the plot is predictable and cheesy.

The Zevo family maintains a monumental toy factory far, far away from the rest of civilization. An innocent dreamland, you might say. The paternal figure in the family, Kenneth Zevo, is dying and needs to name a successor as the head of the company. The obvious choice is his son Leslie (Robin Williams), but Leslie is young and inexperienced. Instead, he names his brother, General Leland Zevo (Michael Gambon), his heir. While the general is a complete stranger to the toy business, he is much older and presumably wiser than Leslie. Not surprisingly, Kenneth dies soon after.

The general immediately decides to start producing war toys, which is unheard of in Zevo Toys. To avoid industrial espionage, he brings in his son Captain Patrick Zevo (LL Cool J), and has him maintain strict security.  Leslie and his sister Alsatia (Joan Cusack) realize something is wrong. Over time, the general goes crazy and decides to convert the toy factory into a military weapons factory, with the idea that toy armies would be more efficient than regular ones. Obviously, Leslie and his entourage of toy factory employees must intervene and save the companies delightful innocence.

The overall plot of the film is a little childish and predictable. Every once and awhile there will be a worthy gag or joke to spice things up a little, but more often than not the jokes do little more than reveal the juvenile character of the factory employees. It is somehow appropiate that they are childlike, and it does give the film an unusual charm. However, the kiddy humor is excessive. The story is shoddy, and it isn’t the core concept at all. The problem is poor execution.  They explain Gambon’s accent despite the fact that he is supposed to be an American, and the gag is even pretty funny. However, the relationship between Gambon and LL Cool J is very unconvincing. You’d think this was a children’s film, but then there is a creepy sex scene and a little innuendo. So what target audience is this movie intended for? The world may never know.

Some of the things that the film says about toys are interesting though, because some of it came true. At one point, the general brings in kids as test players for video games like first person shooters and flight simulators, and these types of games are popular now. Many games involve the over the top violence that desensitizes the youngsters in the general’s war rooms. At the time of the movie’s release, there certainly was already huge a shift to action figures like GI Joe’s.

While the plot is lackluster, the visual aesthetic is marvelous. The toy world is brilliantly conceived, and the look of this film is truly memorable. The inventive and animated environments are striking, as are the more unusual of Williams’ gadgets, such as a noisy jacket. My one of my favorite scenes is one where where Kenneth’s widow is adjusting a large, paper doll house, and the camera reveals that she herself is sheltered a life sized version of the same house. The effect on screen is interesting. It is the visual inventiveness in which this movies soul really lies.

While this is the most light-hearted, carefree film I have reviewed thus far, I believe it is also the weakest. Artistic beauty of this level is always welcome, but it is much more appreciable when the story is more refined. However, if you are in the mood for something peppy and not very demanding, this might be worth a gander.

5. 8

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“Barton Fink”

September 10, 2008

While a number of films created by Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success, many seem to have forgotten most of their work prior to Fargo (1996). The obvious explanation is that several of them didn’t do all that well at the box office, but then so did the Big Lebowski (1998). Among the more obscure of these is  Barton Fink (1991), a strange psychological drama with dark comedic elements. It has been a fairly rare find until it was included in a DVD collection of Coen Brother movies. Is it worth while addition?

That depends on tastes. Barton Fink is hard to classify because it is so unusual and unique. Chances are that anyone who liked Fight Club (1999) or the Secret Window (2004) will enjoy this movie, because it shares the psychological breakdown those two later films did. In fact, John Turturro played crucial roles in both the Secret Window and Barton Fink. However, it was much more subtle and abstract in Barton Fink, which was probably why it lost money. It also functions as a dark comedy rather than a suspense thiller, so that makes the experience even more unusual. Barton Fink did win an award at the Cannes Film Festival, though.

This film is about a popular and ambitious Broadway playwright in the 1930’s, who tries to make the transition into Hollywood and immediately starts to have problems. Barton Fink, played by John Turturro, has made his big name writing plays about “the common man”, but is disatisfied with his work despite his success. When he decides to go to Hollywood, He arrives at an old, seemingly empty hotel. Over time, the hotel becomes something of a character itself. When he establishes his stay there, he finally recieves his assignment from the product studio- a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Never having seen any movies before, Fink quickly succumbs to writer’s block. Big time writer’s block, too. John Goodman plays Fink’s neighbor, Charlie Meadows, who despite his good intentions always manages to distract Fink. Ironically, he also happens to personify the “common man” Fink aspires to write about. Eventually, the pressure gets to Fink and things start to go a little crazy.

The characters that populate Fink’s world are brilliant charactures of Hollywood. It is really easy to see how Barton Fink can be so confused by studio protocol. These people are brutal, complicated, and extremely unpredictable! Turturro himself won Best Actor at the Cannes for his performance, but I think John Goodman was at his best in this movie. Even Walter Sobchak isn’t quite as…dynamic, as Charlie is. Trust me. Sobchak was unpredictable and intense, but Charlie can be almost terrifying sometimes. There were moments where Goodman was truly awesome to behold, particularly in the film’s climax.

Of course, there is always the eerie, haunted hotel. The hotel is by far the most memorable part of the film, if only because it is so creepy. Entire academic papers could be written about enviroments like this hotel. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, this is the part that gets rather abstract. You see, it is probably best to think of the hotel as being Fink’s mind. As he experiences writer’s block for the first time, the room itself starts to come undone. As Barton Fink becomes more stressed, the hotel becomes more like Hell.

The only real problem with this film is that sometimes things happen that don’t make much sense, at least not at first. It has its abstract moments. There is alot to interpret here, whether you’re looking for some deep artsy meaning or just trying to figure out what is going on. This does not make the movie unwatchable by any means, but it will distract some viewers.

I personally had a bad case of writer’s block several months ago, so I could relate with anxiety that comes with it. Perhaps that experience has influenced my view of Barton Fink, but even so this was a very interesting and exceptionally unique movie for its time. Like I said, if you liked the Secret Window, chances are you will like this as well. Every once in a while it is good to watch a movie that can make you think, like the Sixth Sense, and like the Sixth Sense (1999), you may even find yourself watching this twice.

8.0 out of 10.0

Although it has been more than a decade since its theatrical release, there are still ads on television for the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). As the name implies, its about the monsters of Halloween. Their leader, Jack Skellington, tries to hijack Santa’s holiday. Naturally, chaos ensues. It is an animated dark fantasy/musical film known thoughout the world for its radical and striking appearance, and a sound track that is both haunting and enchanting. It was also a stop-motion claymation movie, which is always fun. Unfortunately, it seems that its unique qualities scared off some viewers, particularly parents. Is it still worth watching any more? Is it outdated?

Well, we cannot off-handedly dismiss it as outdated, because Corpse Bride (2005) was so successful. The Nightmare Before Christmas was also re-released a couple years ago in theaters, so surely at least someone thinks it is worth seeing. And why not? The fimmakers behind it managed to integrate german expressionism, claymation, and the musical genre and got it to sell. There’s something to be said for presenting something new and different, even if its really just a combination of things that have been around a while.

Although this movie is a musical, I believe that few would deny that the visuals are its strongest asset. Tim Burton has an artist touch to his movies that viewers either love or hate. His setting and characters tend to look like they came from a gloomy children’s book (mind you, Tim Burton didn’t actually direct this film, but he did produce it).

 This film was also HEAVILY influenced by the 1920’s European art movement called German Expressionism. The creatures and objects are all distorted and have skewed, nightmarish angles. The mayor and Jack even looks like Dr. Calgari and Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (1920), a prominent film of that trend. Nothing is made to look realistic, and why should it? Seriously, we’re talking about a cartoon. The stop-motion animation also remininscent of the older Christmas movies like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), but with a strange otherworldly twist. Being inspired by other movies is always a good thing, but I was a little turned off when I noticed how alike Jack Skellington was to Jack Pumkinhead from Return to Oz. In fact, he wears a Pumkinhead costume in the opening sequence.

The drawback to stop-motion is that by the 1993, it was a bit archaic and primitive (keep in mind that Jurrassic Park came out the same year).  Every once in a while there is a distracting flaw, such as visible wires and such. Regardless, the cinematographer and the crew clearly were masters of the visual language. Every transition is flawless or damn close, and the characters are beautifully photographed. This is the only musical I have ever seen where the viewer can turn off the volume, and still know what’s going on. That is truly a sign of great filmmaking, as film is a primarily visual medium. Of course, as a musical, it would be nothing without great music, wouldn’t it?

Who could be a more appropiate choice for this film’s music than Danny Elfman? The man has produced some of the best movie music for decades, and the music for the the Nightmare Before Christmas may be his best work. He even sang some parts. All of the songs are memorable- perhaps excessively so. I had the saddest song stuck in my head for days.

The plot isn’t as impressive, however. Jack decides to take a break from Halloween and try Christmas, but does so carelessly and without asking Santa Claus. His admirer knows its a bad idea, but Jack is oblivious. He has Santa captured, and takes over the fat man’s job, and obviously discovers he isn’t too great at it. There is also a boogieman with a gambling addiction that tries to eat Santa. Its a simple, predictable story. The magic of the actual storytelling compensates for this wonderfully, but the boogieman villian could have been fleshed out much more. He is interesting, but his role is so small it is almost unneccessary.

Overall the movie is very gloomy, and it’s easy to see why the emo and goth crowds identify with it so much. The freaky monsters fail to find their place in the outside world. Jack’s admirer and romantic interest, Sally, feels perpetually overlooked (guess who sang that depressing song). It is easy to see the film as a tragedy, promoting conformity within one’s own group. In this case, the monsters would stay with Halloween. I would challenge that. In the end, Jack and his admirer get what they really wanted in the end. Even so, the movie is still pretty dark. Some of the characters might creep out kids too, but then again some kids were scared of the California Raisins.

This is a must see for Tim Burton fans and Halloween fanatics. That’s a given. For everyone else, it depends on where you stand with musicals, or strange characters. Just don’t dismiss this as a mere children’s film, because young adults tend to be most attracted to this film. I recommend it, especially if you have Netflix.

8.5 out 10.0

Since we are talking older films, I think I’ll start with the ones I remember as a kid.  No, not the Disney sappy cartoon movies.  I’m talking about the darker fairytale movies that arose in the 1980’s and early 90’s, most of which were either forgotten or forever idolized as cult hits.

Certain titles immediately come to mind; Labrynth (1986), the Dark Crystal (1982), the Secret of NIMH (1982) and of course, the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  There were tons of others as well, and all of them loosely shared a mystical and sometimes haunting aura that directly challenged the model used by Disney.  Ironically, Disney tried to capitalize on the dark fantasy movement, but only had one extrordinary success.

There is little question as to the visual esthetic and mastery of puppeteering that complemented some of these films. After all, these are the masterpieces of Jim Hensen and Tim Burton. Don Bluth even managed to give Disney a little competition in the animation field.  One even features David Bowie in excessively tight pants.

But looking back, were these films all that dark? Sometimes they were. Consider the film Return to Oz (1985):

It starts off with Dorothy being taken to a shrink who wants to subject her to electro-shock therapy to cure her “obsession” with Oz.  After Dorothy narrowly escapes down a river, she finds herself in a post-apocalypse version of Oz, where the buildings are in ruins and the people turn to stone (and therefore, dead). The land is terrorized by insane mostrosities and ruled by an evil  old queen, who cuts off pretty young women’s heads so she can wear them. 

Wow. Now thats different.

Obviously, not all of these movies were so extreme, and even Return to Oz had a happy ending. Movies like these generally were intended for somewhat older audiences, hence the PG ratings.  What you have to understand is that “fairy” tales weren’t always cheery Disney stories. These films harken back to the old days when children were told “faerie” tales to scare them so they wouldn’t wander into the woods. 

Faeries used to be conceived as fallen angles that Didn’t quite make it to hell. They generally weren’t good or evil, but they were chaotic and not to be trusted. They could be beautiful winged women, or goblins and trolls that dwelled under bridges. Alot of these stories have sad endings and sometimes involve small children being stolen. Although these movies don’t go that far, they do tend to blur the lines between black and white. Inevitably, mainstream audiences became uncomfortable with this style, and opted for traditional Hollywood movies.

Why talk about all this? Tommorrow, I will do my review of the Nightmare Before Christmas.I haven’t seen it in nearly a decade and I am a fan of the German Expressionist aesthetic. Seeing as how this is the first review, why not give it and its predecessors a proper introduction