Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Heavy Metal

(1981) Directed by Gerald Potterton (overall feature), John Bruno and Jimmy T. Murakami (“Soft Landing”), John Halas (“So Beautiful and So Dangerous”), Julian Harris and Paul Sabella (“Captain Sternn”), Barrie Nelson (“B-17”), Jack Stokes (“Den”), Pino Van Lamsweerde (“Harry Canyon”), and Harry Whitaker (“Grimaldi”); Written by Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum; Original Story by Dan O’Bannon (“Soft Landing” and “B-17”), Daniel Golberg and Len Blum (“Harry Canyon” and “Taarna”), Richard Corben (“Den”), Bernie Wrightson (“Captain Sternn”), and Angus McKie (“So Beautiful and So Dangerous”); Starring: Richard Romanus, Don Francks, Susan Roman, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Percy Rodrigues; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I like it better here. On Earth, I’m nobody. But here, I’m Den.” – Den (John Candy)

A different sort of movie requires a different kind of review, so I’m traveling back to 1982, to watch Heavy Metal on cable TV with my 14-year-old self. Let’s forget about the physics of time travel, the paradox of meeting myself, or how I found a time machine in the first place, okay? The important part is, I’m here to experience this movie from the perspective of its target audience. Join me, won’t you?

(Zip! I’m suddenly in my parents’ living room circa 1982. Impressed?)

14-Year Old Me (14): Who are you?

Present-Day Me (PD): I’m you.

14: How can you be me?

PD: Listen, kid, I’m you from 2018. Haven’t you ever watched the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits? Of course you have, so you know how this works. I’m you, and you’re me. Got it? Good. So how do–

14: Hey, I sure lost a lot of hair! And I’m not skinny anymore. What happened to me?

PD: Never mind that… I’m just here to watch the damn movie, then I need to go back to my own time.

14: Why do you–

PD: I don’t make the rules, kid. Wow, that’s my folks’ old Zenith console. What, isn’t that a 25-inch screen?

14: Yeah, they let me watch the big TV.

PD: Wow, so…big. It’s positively overwhelming. So here we go. Hey, while the opening credits are rolling, I might add Ghostbusters fans will enjoy the fact that producer Ivan Reitman, voice actor Harold Ramis and composer Elmer Bernstein all had a hand in this movie.

14: Shhh! It’s starting. Hey, what’s Ghostbusters?

PD: Wait a couple of years…Trust me, you’ll dig it.

14: This opening is rad! The convertible’s dropping out of the space shuttle with an astronaut onboard. That’s insane…and unrealistic.

PD: Right… insane. (Did you just say “rad”? I didn’t think anyone actually said that in the ‘80s.) Who’d be crazy enough to do something like that? Well, as a matter of fact, earlier this year, I mean in 2018, this egotistical billionaire named – oh, never mind.

14: Alright, so he’s landed and he… Oh shit, don’t touch the Loc Nar!

PD: Hmm… Nice little shout out to Kiss Me Deadly. So that’s what they call that glowing green orb? It’s a framing device, to introduce each animated segment, which illustrates how evil has endured throughout the cosmos, yada yada…

14: The animation with this cab driver kinda looks like a comic book.

PD: Right. There’s some obvious Moebius influence going on here, and the film-noirish voiceover and dystopian New York with flying cars. I’ll bet the folks who did Blade Runner watched this, not to mention The Fifth Element, years later.

14: The Fifth what?

PD: You never heard of The Fifth Element? …Uh, forget about it.

14: By the way, why is this called Heavy Metal when there isn’t that much heavy metal music in it?

PD: It’s named after the magazine, not the music.

14: Oh… now I get it. Look, boobs!

PD: You have the attention span of my dog. This scene is little more than self-indulgent wanking material. Her father just died in the previous scene, and the only way she can think to repay him is to offer her body? Really? I mean, look at the guy. He’s no prize in the looks or personality department. Are you kidding me? Admittedly, the twist at the end was pretty good, and the artwork is interesting, but come on. Moving on…

14:  Hey, isn’t that John Candy? I love SCTV.

PD: Me too, and good ear, kid. Yep. Candy really makes this segment work. He’s great as an ordinary nerdy kid, Dan, thrust into an unusual situation. The funny thing is, he’s still the same nerdy kid in a muscular hero’s body, as Den. Speaking of SCTV, this movie features three other SCTV alumni: Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty and Harold Ramis.

14: You talk too much.

PD: Am I distracting you from the T&A? I can tell this is going to be a long 90 minutes. You realize there’s more to being an adult than screwing everything that moves, right?

14: I want to be Den. I feel like they made this for me.

PD: Yeah, you and every other underappreciated, over-sexed adolescent male heterosexual twerp. You wouldn’t know what to do if you had the opportunity. Oh, and sorry about the twerp part.

14: You just don’t get it. This next story takes place on a space station.

PD: I’ve always been a sucker for space-bound stories, but “Captain Sternn” never really “did it” for me. The animation is quite well done (by Montreal-based Boxcar Studios), but there isn’t one remotely likeable character in the whole thing.

14: Okay. I’ve seen better. Hey, I like this one… It’s kind of creepy, but I like it, with these dead guys in a bomber.

PD: “B-17” is one of the stronger pieces. It was written by Dan O’Bannon, and focuses on the horror, with spare bits of dialogue. Did you know it was originally supposed to be part of a much larger piece that would trace evil in humanity throughout the ages? Ambitious, but it would’ve given the movie some needed depth. Pity though.

14: More boobs.

PD: Okay, I get it. “So Beautiful and So Dangerous” is nicely animated, especially the ovoid alien spacecraft that descends on the Pentagon, and it features another fun character by John Candy, but it’s missing something. Those annoying alien pilots (voiced by Harold Ramis and Eugene Levy) that snort space cocaine? I wouldn’t trust them to pilot a vacuum cleaner, let alone an interstellar spacecraft.

14: I’m not gonna say it – I’m thinking it, but I’m not gonna say it.

PD: Then don’t say it. This is a brutal, visceral and yes, exploitive segment. At least this time, the hero is a woman. Naturally, this gives the animators an opportunity to spend an unhealthy amount of time lingering on her dressing with a fetishistic lens. Maybe it’s just me, but an outfit that resembles leather bondage gear isn’t exactly the sort of thing you’d want to wear for maximum protection if you’re going into battle against hordes of murderous zealots. But what do I know? The concept of practicality never stopped dozens of fantasy illustrators (Franzetta, Vallejo, etc…).

14: You’re just old. Hey, she kicked their asses, didn’t she?

PD: Uh huh, there’s that at least. Look, I understand the filmmakers were aiming for a gender-bending version of the laconic protagonist from the Sergio Leone westerns (a Woman with No Name?), but leaving her mute sends a bad message – better seen and not heard. Yeah, really progressive stuff.

14: You sound like my older brother… or my dad.

PD: Ouch! Whoah, look at the time. It’s been fun

14: But wait, I have so much to ask about the future!

PD: Where do I start? Everybody’s obsessed with their phones, they brought 3D back to the theaters, but nobody cared, Star Wars and Star Trek are still kind of a big deal… Listen, there’s one thing you need to know about 2018. There’s a–

(Poof! Whew, I’m back in my time…)

News flash: Heavy Metal doesn’t quite hold up under the intense scrutiny, cynicism and social consciousness of the older me, but is it fair to look at it from solely that perspective? The movie has fulfilled many male adolescent fantasies over the years with its physically overdeveloped, and otherwise underdeveloped female characters. As simple wish fulfillment (sex without attachment or consequences) it succeeds. It is what it is, for better or worse, achieving its modest goals. Not unlike the Loc Nar, Heavy Metal is something of an artifact, but I can’t deny retaining some affection for it. It’s easy to wallow in a fog of nostalgia, still thinking it’s the coolest movie ever, but unchecked nostalgia is a tricky thing. Like the high school jock who wears his letterman jacket 20 years later, hoping to recapture a feeling that’s long gone, the movie can never have the same impact as it did when I was a teenager. It spends so much time pandering to its core audience that it misses the opportunity to connect with everyone else. Considering the high level of artistry and efforts by multiple animators, it could have been so much more. Perhaps the main lesson learned is: maybe I can’t re-create context if I’m no longer the intended audience, but for 90 minutes one can pretend to regress to a simpler, less enlightened time. And yet, I can’t shake this persistent memory of watching it with this cantankerous middle-aged guy in my living room.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Yellow Submarine

(1968) Directed by George Dunning; Written by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal; Original Story by Lee Minoff; Based upon a song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Starring: Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoffrey Hughes and Lance Percival; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…It is a curiosity that this film went into production without a final script, without a final storyboard, and with a group of people so enthusiastic to do it, inspired by the Beatles’ music (one of the most important factors), and that it got made in 11 months, as far as I’m concerned, remains a total miracle.” – John Coates (from DVD commentary)

A hearty “cheers” to Terry Canote of A Shroud of Thoughts for hosting the 5th Annual Rule, Britannia Film Blogathon, celebrating England’s rich cinematic tradition. I’m honored to be a part of this blogathon, which coincidentally intersects with my latest theme, Animation Month. My selection can’t get more British than the band that was on the front lines of the British invasion in the ‘60s, and it’s an apt reflection of the era.

The Beatles were one of a handful of groups that were so much a part of my formative years, helping to shape my developing brain and subsequent tastes. I can’t imagine life without their music, or by extension, the film Yellow Submarine, which captures the spirit of their psychedelic period. It’s hard to believe 50 years have passed since the film’s debut. I have no idea when I first watched this, but I wasn’t very old, nor was the film. Sure, the ‘60s have come and gone, I’m older and grayer, with significantly less hair, but the movie hasn’t lost its luster – one of the enduring tests of any film.

Yellow Submarine was created within a brief 11-month time frame, and only slightly over its $1 million budget. It was a monumental effort, requiring a team of 200 people working around the clock (the filmmakers recruited students from several art schools around London to fill a night shift). The Beatles themselves were rather ambivalent about the movie, fearing it would be a cutesy Disney-style production, and didn’t provide voices for their animated selves (according to the DVD commentary, they couldn’t find George).* As the production progressed, they had a change of heart, thus resulting in their whimsical appearance at the end.

* Fun Fact: Peter Batten, voice of George Harrison, was discovered in a nearby pub. He was arrested and jailed before the project was complete, due to army desertion. This left Paul Angelis (who also voiced Ringo and the Chief Blue Meanie) to complete some unfinished lines.

We’re introduced to Pepperland, an idyllic place where music and love commingle, until the Blue Meanies come along to spoil everyone’s day. Led by the Chief Blue Meanie, who only takes “no” for an answer, they launch an assault on the countryside, leaving it a lifeless wasteland full of broken dreams and unending sadness. In an act of desperation, the mayor enlists an admiral to take the titular undersea vessel to search for help. Will the Beatles arrive in time to restore Pepperland to its former glory? Do I really have to answer this? On this musical and colorful odyssey, it’s not the quest but the journey that’s the thing.

It’s lazy commentary to suggest the filmmakers were all on drugs when they conceived of the bizarre, hallucinogenic visuals that permeate the film. In his DVD commentary, production supervisor John Coates disputed this assertion; otherwise, the film would never have been completed on schedule. Arguably one of the most noteworthy things about Yellow Submarine is the plethora of nutty characters like the Blue Meanies,* a flying glove, Apple Bonkers and Kinky Boot Beasts. The nonsensical pedantic Jeremy (the “Nowhere Man,”) speaks in rhyme (“If I spoke prose, you’d all find out I don’t know what I talk about.”). The character designs are, particularly in regard to the Beatles, fanciful and quite recognizable. The animators took pains to distinguish each of the Beatles from one another. Ringo** was filmed at 30 frames per second, while the rest of his bandmates were at 24 frames per second, so he has a different, distinctly loping pace. Paul is portrayed as a dandy. George, reflecting his spiritual side, appears clad in a Nehru jacket, and John sports his distinctive round spectacles.

* Another Fun Fact: According to art director Heinz Edelmann’s assistant Millicent McMillan, he wanted the Blue Meanies to be purple.

** My 14-year-old kid (quite the budding artist as well, and never known to mince words), offered an alternate take on the character designs, stating Ringo’s animated counterpart “looks like he climbed out of the pits of hell.” Well, you can’t please everyone. 

In addition to the jaunty title song, the roster of songs was pulled from the Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sergeant Pepper albums, along with some “original” material, which didn’t make it into their albums. Although the four added songs weren’t well regarded by the Beatles and some critics at the time, they integrate nicely into the film, and complement the themes and visuals nicely. “Hey Bulldog,”* an original composition from John Lennon, was submitted just prior to the movie’s completion. The sequence with the song was omitted after an early screening but restored on home video. Admittedly, some of the animation was a bit rough around the edges, but I’m glad this underrated song/sequence is back. Rounding out the musical accompaniment to the production is the lush orchestral score by longtime Beatle producer George Martin.

* Lennon commented, “…It’s a good sounding record that means nothing.” (from “Revolution,” by Ian Inglis, The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles)

The film’s style captures the gestalt of the era, with its vivid colors, numerous pop culture references, and a pastiche of different techniques, including traditional cell animation, rotoscoping and live action embedded in animation. The impossibly tight deadline called for innovation on the fly. During the song “When I’m 64,” one minute counts off onscreen, with stylized numbers. The amusing sequence was bred out of necessity, as filmmakers were running out of time and money. Thus, this simple but effective illustration about the passage of time, was born.

Yellow Submarine embraces the premise that love and music could save the world. It’s a naïve sentiment perhaps, but not voiced enough in film. The Psychotronic Video Guide missed the point with its cynical assessment of the film, as a family-friendly, anachronistic depiction of a band that had moved on to less innocent territory. To the contrary, this idealized version of the Beatles is exactly what the world needed then as well as now, which fits nicely in the scheme of the nonsense universe of the film (the tagline “Nothing is real” says it all). To best appreciate Yellow Submarine, you’re better off taking advice from another Beatles song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (not present in the movie, but it could have been): “Turn off your mind relax and float downstream.”