August 27, 2008

Your micro-review roundup: 27 August 2008

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

The Animatrix
The Animatrix (movie; 2003)
Anthology: Written and directed by many

Hey hey, it's a weekday all-movie micro-review roundup today, mostly because I've been concentrating on book reviews this summer and so have a bunch of DVD reviews piled up on my hard drive and needing to get written down and posted. (In fact, I have seven full-length DVD reviews stacked up in the bullpen too, including such provocative titles as There Will Be Blood, Deer Hunter and Secretary; I'll be trying to get those interspersed a little more often within the book reviews over the coming weeks.) Anyway, that starts us today with 2003's The Animatrix, a series of nine short cutting-edge animated films from Japan, commissioned by the Wachowski Brothers after visiting that country and meeting many of the animators over there for the first time. And in fact, these were commissioned for a special purpose, as a sorta "sequel 1.5" for the juggernaut "Matrix" series of science-fiction films the Wachowskis wrote and directed back in the early 2000s; the videos on display here were all released between film two and three of the series, as a way of telling both expository and between-film stories as a supplement to fanboys, sometimes shown before other films in theatres that summer and also available at the Matrix website at the time, eventually re-run on cable's "Adult Swim" and then finally released as a unified collection on DVD. And since I don't have cable, and didn't have broadband internet either when these first came out, this was in fact the first time I had seen any of them.

And for what they aim to be, they're...pretty damn good, actually, certainly nothing that's going to be mistaken for deep or complex filmmaking but definitely several cuts in quality above most other short cutting-edge animation experiments out there. Now, understand that all nine films take on wildly different kinds of stories, even animation styles, and that liking one of them doesn't guarantee that you'll like them all; but this is a big part of its charm, I think, that it is effectively a big splashy introduction for most Americans to the infinitely varied schools of thought within Japanese animation, a subject which has been taken seriously as an adult topic over there a lot longer than it has here. I'm not sure how necessary they are anymore purely from a plot or story standpoint -- let's not forget, after all, that these were mostly commissioned to drum up continual excitement about the franchise in the lull between the second and third films -- but they for sure stand on their own as stunning experiments in grown-up cartooning, and since they are supplemental stories you don't even need to be that familiar with the Matrix mythology to begin with. Recommended in general, and particularly perfect fodder for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Out of 10: 8.9

Riverworld
Riverworld (movie; 2003)
Written by Stuart Hazeldine, from the novels by Philip Jose Farmer
Directed byKari Skogland

Oh, and speaking of movies that were better than I was expecting, let's talk a bit about 2003's Riverworld, produced by cable's Sci-Fi Channel from a series of notorious books by Philip Jose Farmer in the '70s. See, they have a pretty smart way of developing new shows over there at Sci-Fi, which I'm surprised other networks have been so slow to adopt themselves; they'll buy up the film rights to smaller yet revered SF books on a regular basis, then produce a two-hour movie or four-hour miniseries out of it, giving them the chance to expand it to a weekly series if it's popular but at least having a repeatable and sellable product at the end if they don't. (This is opposed to how the broadcast networks have done it for decades, by producing expensive pilots that will air only once to sometimes almost no audience, essentially trashed afterwards if not picked up as a regular series.)

In fact, Riverworld is one of the first adult SF series I ever read, back in junior high in the early '80s not long after the original novels came out; they were basically Farmer's chance to explore historical figures in an interesting and novel way, by placing them on this bizarre ur-planet where every single human being who has ever lived suddenly all exist at once, being fed and clothed regularly by mysterious high-tech devices but otherwise being left alone by whatever advanced alien species resurrected them all there, naturally forming new nations and kingdoms and with real figures from history doing all kinds of inventive things within the complicated milieu. (Just for one good example, Mark Twain/Sam Clemens is a regular character throughout the series, who ends up figuring out how to build that world's first steamboat.) It's a huge, sweeping saga, and of course no two-hour movie is going to do it full justice; and in fact, based on all the horrible reviews I'd seen online, I had really been embracing myself for the worst.

But it turns out this isn't the worst, not by a long shot indeed; if you ignore the fact that the story wildly veers from the novels on a regular basis, other than that this is actually a pretty good low-budget science-fiction movie, using CGI in an expensive but sparing way so to get the most bang for their buck. It didn't get picked up for a full series, it's important to note, and it most decidedly does not stand up to the absolute best that network has to offer (cough cough, Battlestar Galactica); it was certainly better, though, than some of the other dreck I've seen on that channel before (cough cough, Primeval), something at the end that I was glad I sat down and watched. It's probably got Farmer turning in his grave, but this is a surprisingly good option for those not married to the Riverworld Canon. (Oops, and it turns out that Farmer's actually still alive, 90 years old and still writing new work. Unbelievable!)

Out of 10: 7.7

Eragon
Eragon (movie; 2006)
Written by Peter Buchman, from the novel by Christopher Paolini
Directed by Stefen Fangmeier

This is, like, based on some famous children's book or something like that, right? See, since I'm a fully-grown adult with no kids of my own, I barely know anything about children's literature these days; to be frank, I only picked this up because I stumbled across it at my local library one evening when bored, and saw a dragon on the cover and thought, "F-ck, two hours of dragons will entertain me tonight, even if it's horrible." Er, guess what? It's horrible. It's essentially the tale of a land where once roamed a mighty set of dragon-riding soldiers, eventually wiped out almost completely by the resident Bad Guy; ah, but turns out that exactly one dragon egg is left in their world, which through a series of circumstances lands in the hands of a good-looking teenage peasant boy. The dragon hatches, the two bond, and then there's some sort of mystical crap about this symbiotic relationship the two now have, and there's fire and there's sword fights and there's dozens of Lord of the Rings ripoffs and there's John Malkovich overacting his skinny white ass off, and blah blah blah I ended up falling asleep about halfway through, which is why it is only meriting a one-paragraph mention here on a random Wednesday night. I'm assuming the book is much better than this hacky mess, otherwise it would've never been made into a movie to begin with; and believe me when I say that you fans of the novel should just stick with it, and not bother with this muddled thing.

Out of 10: 3.3

What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?
What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (movie; 2004)
Written and directed by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, Matthew Hoffman and Mark Vicente

In these days when the price of producing a theatre-quality movie is dropping so dramatically (did you know you can now buy high-def videocameras in the US for $800?), we are starting to see a proliferation of high-profile movies that make you shake your head afterwards and go, "What the f-ck was that all about?" And we lovers of the underground arts should be applauding this, of course, because it means the explosive growth of the exact kind of trippy, personal, limited-audience projects that we adore so much; but of course, this also means the explosive growth of unwatchable crap too, with some films out there falling on both sides of the fence depending on who you're talking to. And thus should you consider yourself warned for the head-scratching What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? from 2004, a movie that not only defies simple explanation but also virtually guarantees a split audience, based simply on the way it's made.

See, it's partly a straight-ahead documentary about quantum physics; and in fact, if you just plucked out and strung together all the interview scenes with turtleneck-wearing ex-hippie professors, you'd have yourself a pretty good episode of the PBS science show Nova. But see, all this footage is then cut in with all these bizarre CGI effects and ponderous New Age musings, just a whole series of, um, "groovy" observations about Space and Time and Energy and Being that will have you and your stoned undergrad buddies talking long into the night, after getting back from the midnight screening of this at your campus theatre. But then it's not only these things, but also has a straight-ahead narrative film cut into it as well, one that believe it or not stars deaf Oscar-winning actress Marlee Freaking Matlin, playing not herself but rather a frustrated underemployed photographer in New York, who keeps having a series of strange experiences that just happen to mirror whatever the documentary parts cut with the scene are talking about too.

Yeah, I don't know -- I don't know how a film like this ever got made, and I don't know how you would go about trying to market and distribute a film like this in the first place. I'll tell you this, though, that the people who love this movie really, really love it, based on what I've read online; and that's my whole point, of course, that we live in truly exciting times artistically, since it's easier than ever to produce a high-quality film that will only appeal to a small group of people, but appeal to them with a burning passion. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? is one of those films; I recommend that you check it out if you get the chance, but I'm not saying that you'll necessarily like it.

Out of 10: 8.4

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:57 PM, August 27, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |