Alice (1988)

I’ve been seeking out obscure films for a good long while now, and sometimes you find an obscure film that is so unbelievably bizarre that you have to compel yourself to watch it, and it was more spectacular that I was perhaps prepared for. This of course is the bizarre Czechoslovakian retelling of Alice in Wonderland, as written and directed by Jan Švankmajer. His vision of the story rejected the conventional fairytale style of previous adaptations, and instead offers an amoral, surreal adventure that defies logic at every turn, and it’s an artistic triumph.

The plot of this film loosely follows the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, following a bored Alice narrating herself in what appears to be a series of events that she has no idea how to navigate. She chases a taxidermically stuffed rabbit that suddenly comes to life, and finds herself working her way through Wonderland and its perils. Not many of the familiar characters can be found here, but the white rabbit, Mad Hatter, and the King and Queen of Hearts are here, recreated with what appear to be common household items. It’s also worth noting that the little girl who plays the role of Alice is also voice for all other characters in the film.

There’s only one actor in the whole film, but she manages to deliver a good performance as someone genuinely baffled by her surroundings, though surprisingly clever. The entire him is in Czech (sadly, without subtitles), but I didn’t care, because I didn’t watch this film for the acting. The plot is a very bizarre rendition of the familiar story of Alice, noticeably darker than fans of the old Disney adaptation might be used to, but it’s this unvarnished, sometimes nightmarish slant that makes it superior to all other adaptations if I must be frank.

Adding to this surrealistic twist is the film’s captivating use of stop motion animation, which fluidly creates the impression of a world that is removed from ours, one that comes to life and is ready to pounce on you at any moment. I should note that Švankmajer did not use miniature models to portray the special effects, which is rare and impressive considering the dearth of stop-motion feature films during the time the film was made. The film’s overall style of presentation and production design were also brilliant. The whole film reads like somebody took the book upon which every retelling Alice and Wonderland is based, ripped up the pages and turned it into a kind of abstract art.

And art is pretty much the best word to describe it. The Disney version of Alice was basically a familiar, but almost camp fairy tale that was saccharine to the point one could argue that it’s superficial. This version, however, says “to Hell with all that”, freeing Alice from the hypnotic spell of family-friendly sweetness, taking her to new realms without necessarily deviating heavily from the source material. In summation, it’s a classic of experimental fantasy, and I personally recommend it instead of any other version of Alice in Wonderland.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A
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Scrooged (1988)

scrooged_film_posterFor my last Christmas film for this year, I’ve picked out a film that I can say is a consistently good holiday film. I am fully aware that this is essentially a modernized spin on A Christmas Carol (which, to be fair, would have been quite rare back then compared to now), which is extremely familiar, but around Christmas time that’s not exactly a huge concern.

The film sees former Ghostbuster Bill Murray playing the role of Frank Cross, the meanest, crudest, most arrogant television executive out there. He’ll do just about anything to boost ratings for his network, including mounting a bizarre range of Christmas programmes, and advertising a live performance of A Christmas Carol using a shock ad campaign. He also forces his employees to work on the live production, meaning that he has to work right through Christmas Eve.

At that point, he’s visited by the three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, all of them modernised and given a surreal twist, but the rest of the plot is pretty familiar. It’s essentially A Christmas Carol set in the high-flying corporate culture of the late 1980’s, and it works mainly because the film had good writers behind it. Personally, I think it’s one of the best versions of A Christmas Carol out there, primarily because it delivers the tale in a more contemporary style, while still trying to make it into an original film.

It also helps that Bill Murray is such a hilarious character in this film. He’s great in various other films, including Ghostbusters and Stripes, and he’s great here too. He always seems to deliver his lines with just the right timing and deadpan wit. It seems as though the script is sort of meant for him. The side characters work well alongside him, with an effective chemistry that results in laugh after laugh.

The film certainly presents itself in a contemporary style, almost similar in tone to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, and later Batman, and I say this primarily because the film was scored by Danny Elfman (who would go on to compose for Tim Burton’s most popular films). It definitely has the whole Christmas vibe going for it, as I would expect. I’ll admit that the film does sound a little bit dated, but it has a lot of charm left over, certainly more than today’s holiday flicks, and it holds up a lot better than many critics would give it credit for. The film also uses its fair share of special effects, and it uses them well in the scenes involving the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, which took a rather surreal turn to say the least.

All in all, I’d say this is certainly one of my favourite Christmas films. I’m definitely willing to watch it again year after year (and it always shows up rather conveniently on TV listings at around this time), and that’s because it’s consistently entertaining. Though it’s not necessarily a classic (it’s definitely close to it though), few Christmas films have that much staying power.

  • Score: 82%
  • Grade: B

Coming to America (1988)

zamundaBefore I start this review I feel obligated to state that, because I’m starting university tomorrow, I’m taking a break from writing film reviews for an as yet undetermined amount of time, so that I can figure out how to balance this with life in uni. For now, I may as well pick a film that I’m very familiar with by now. I know I previously chided the film’s director because of the dreadful Spies Like Us, but his work tends to be hit or miss, with this film definitely being one of the hits.

Most of us know what Coming to America is about – the story of a young African prince who has grown weary of living a life where he has everything handed to him, and despises the thought of marrying a bride who has been chosen for him. Going against his father’s wishes, he decides to look for love in a poor part of America, hoping to meet someone who will love him for more than his money and status.

Essentially its a kind of pop fairy tale, but it’s told very well, and in the kind of light-hearted fashion that works best for it. The main thing that helped was that the story was backed with a riotously laugh-filled script. It also helps that the writers knew how to convey the kind of scenario that they wanted. At the beginning of the film, there’s a lot of emphasis on how grandiose the kingdom is. You get the impression that it’s pretty much paradise, if you’re prepared to have things done for you. Akeem had pretty much everything done for him at his home, in contrast to when he goes to Queens, New York, where he has most of his and his servant’s belongings stolen when they arrive. He does basically everything himself, and develops into an admirably affable character. Of course, towards the end is where the film resembles a more typical romance film, complete with a token happy ending, but it all worked well.

Coming to America’s main strength is its humorous acting, with Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall taking the lead, and donning multiple roles in a practice that, after the film’s success, would come to be a staple of Murphy’s films. Murphy and Hall play all of their roles with exuberance and charismatic enthusiasm. It’s not just the main players that do well here. There’s a whole host of colourful characters who I felt had magnetic personalities – particularly from James Earl Jones and John Amos – perhaps due to the film’s style of humour (the film, after all, did have good writers behind it).

As far as presentation goes, it looked and sounded great, and in a way I think the two different settings perfectly reflect the kind of world the film’s main character transitions to and fro, though in a manner that I think is pretty obvious. As I may have mentioned earlier, the vibrant royal palace of Zamunda represents the kind of opulence and wealth that Akeem was brought up in and is tired of, while the snow-drenched borough of Queens represents the exact opposite of that, a cold indifference place where you have to work hard for everything. The music, though perhaps typical for the time, also helps to convey a warmly jovial atmosphere. Of course, the actual comedy is what keeps the film afloat, along with Murphy’s often booming voice.

Sadly, however, the film is the last great film in Eddie Murphy’s career, but you could say it’s his royal flush. Enduringly hilarious, charmingly magnetic, teeming with personality and replete with great scenes, it’s a good example of a warm comedy film done right, very much unlike the dull, unoriginal, and painfully unfunny comedies of today.

  • Score: 92%
  • Grade: A

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

whitewormKen Russell’s “The Lair of the White Worm” is indeed an interesting breed of film. Made in 1988, this film seems to be calling back to the horror traditions of B-movies from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Of course, this direction does come across as a bit cheesy, and it seems more like a tame vampire film without a vampire, but it’s the kind of B-movie that, though it’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, is nonetheless a playfully entertaining film, even if the actual horror is in short supply here.

The plot of the film is somewhat interesting. Near a bed and breakfast owned by two sisters, an archaeology student named Angus Flint discovers an oddly shaped skull at the ruins of a convent, and he believes the skull is connected to the legend of the Lambton Worm. The site is shortly visited by Lady Sylvia Marsh, and while various people start disappearing, the skull is stolen. With the help of neighbouring nobleman Lord James, Angus manages to find a link between the skull and an ancient cult that worshipped giant worm that lives below the Earth, and finds himself racing to save the Trent sisters from the clutches of Lady Marsh, who turns out to be a snake-like demon with plans to sacrifice them.

The film certainly matches the pace of an old-fashioned gothic horror film, beginning with a slow start and creeping toward a rather surreal and spooky finish. There’s no denying the originality on display, but just because a film has original ideas doesn’t mean that its totally effective in the execution of its ideas. The problem, as I see it, is that the film seems to revel in its kitsch a bit too much, almost as if this was being written as a comedy-horror film, but with few traces of either, and plenty of bizarre psychedelic dream scenes.

The acting isn’t too bad, and I’ve noticed that some of the films’ better performances come from a younger Peter Capaldi. I should also single out Amanda Donohoe as the film’s villain. In a way she sort of reminds me of Catherine Deneuve’s character from The Hunger, but I think she makes for a much better antagonist here, what with her subtle, serpentine demeanour. The other characters perform fairly well too, but they don’t make that much of an impact.

The special effects are quite ridiculous, and the nightmare scenes are perhaps the worst example, as they are littered with cheesy-looking special effects. I’m sure that’s basically just for the sake of abstraction, but it doesn’t work in any way, and just comes across as an accidental joke. While the nightmare scenes are a psychedelic mess, they show up infrequently, and the rest of the film looks alright, with decent production values all the way. It’s just a shame that the film sort of underperformed in terms of actual horror or humour, because I think this film could have been quite a good one. To be fair, it is actually pretty entertaining, but in many ways it fell short of what it could have been.

  • Score: 64%
  • Grade: C

Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988)

TeitoPoster1988Adapted from the award-winning Japanese novel Teito Monogatari, this film is quite a package – revelling in dark fantasy and special effects-laden occult fiction. It was notably successful in its native country, and apparently spawned a new wave of similar occult-themed films, manga, anime and video games. It certainly has a lot to offer, and it was certainly entertaining, but for whatever reason, I found the film somewhat wanting.

Set in the early 20th century, and beginning in the year 1912, the story revolves around a powerful onmyoji (simply put, special kind of Japanese magician) named Yasunori Kato, who wants to awaken the spirit of Taira no Masakado in order to destroy Tokyo, thus weakening the Japanese Empire. He has a wide array of mystical powers at his disposal, and he apparently needs Yukari Tatsumiya, a descendant of Masakado, to complete his plan. Standing in his way are Yasumara Hirai and his followers, who are trying to protect her and stop Kato’s plan.

I don’t think I’ve summarised the plot very well, but to be fair, it was fairly difficult to follow. At the very least I managed to find a version of the film that did have subtitles, so at least I could understand what was happening. I do like the idea, but I think the story moves at such a slow and sometimes meandering pace. The film is set in three different years, first in 1912, then in 1923, and finally in 1927, and throughout the film, the story gets carried away. The film is 135 minutes long, but in terms of pacing, it seems to fumble all over the place. It’s worth mentioning that the plot of the film is based on the first four volumes of Teito Monogatari, and let’s just say I know what happens to try and cover so much ground within only two hours. It leaves the film with a rather jumbled and confused narrative. Imagine what would happen if somebody decided to make a film based on the first three books of the Song of Ice and Fire series.

The acting in this film is pretty good, but the many of the characters themselves leave much to be desired for. However, Kyusaku Shimada’s villainous character is the strongest in the film. He gives a suitably cold and creepy performance as Kato, the supernatural villain who harbours a grudge against the nation. Hirai could have been a pretty good character, except for the fact that he doesn’t really last long in the film’s plot, wherein he’s killed off within the first act.

In terms of visuals, however, the film has some of the hallmarks of an epic film. Made on a budget of 800,000,000 yen (or $8 million), it was one of the most expensive Japanese productions at the time, and it had a reconstruction of the Ginza district of 1927 made specifically for this film, along with a life-size set and 3000 costumed extras. It’s very much like how Hollywood used to make historical epics back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, but it’s not too opulent for its own good. The film also sports some neat creature effects reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters. All in all, say what you will about the narrative, this film at least has some charm.

  • Score: 63%
  • Grade: C