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2012/02/24

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

By Jenny Bootle  

Long before Bella Swan, Sookie Stackhouse, or Blade, in the days before we realised Tom Cruise doesn't suit a frock-coat, that Swedish horror is surprisingly good, and before we knew to be cautious of clockwork beetles; there was Buffy. 

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the 1992 film, is a huge amount of big old hammy fun. Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is a popular high school cheerleader, leading an ordinary valley-girl life, until she meets Merrick (Donald Sutherland), her “Watcher”. He informs her that she is “The Slayer”, whose destiny it is to save the world from vampires, and she spends the rest of the film battling both with the undead and with her new identity.  

The film stars Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, David Arquette, Luke Perry (at the height of his 90210 fame) and, a scene-stealing Paul Reubens. And, it’s fun to play “before they were famous”--Hilary Swank appears as one of Buffy’s cliquey friends and Ben Affleck pops up briefly during a basketball game.

The movie, although based on the same premise as the TV series that screenwriter Joss Whedon later went on to create, is a fairly different creature. He has since stated that the film was “a disappointment” and actually left the set before shooting finished. So, as a huge Joss Whedon fan, I feel a little guilty for loving it so much. However, although director Fran Rubel Kuzui had a “different vision” for the film, Whedon still went on to use her as the Executive Producer of both the Buffy and Angel TV series.


Buffy is a fabulous mix of genres: high-school drama, horror, comedy and action movie all in one. And Whedon, who identifies himself as a feminist, has done a great job of subverting the established silver screen gender roles--it is Pike (Luke Perry) who has to be rescued on several occasions as Buffy struggles to accept her calling –- ultimately creating a tale of female empowerment.

There are lines in this film that make me laugh out loud. Characters like Buffy’s disinterested parents, her cliquey friends and the emotionally-intelligent basketball coach provide plenty of memorable lines, and Paul Reuben’s improvised death scene is just a joy.


And that’s where I’d like to leave this, a tribute to a good, fun film that told a solid story and made me laugh. But, in 2010, Warner Bros announced their plans to release a new Buffy film -- without Joss Whedon’s involvement. Depressing on so many levels, one can only assume they want to cash in on the current vampire vogue and get a piece of that Twilight action. One can only wish that Warner Bros would learn to let the undead stay undead…if you know what I mean.

For more information, visit their IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103893/

2012/02/19

Top Secret!

By Jav Rivera

How do you express the amount of admiration for a film that has brought so much joy to your life for nearly your entire life?  If you know every detail and hidden gem, how do you know when you've completed expressing your feelings?  How do you justify a film so weird and random when discussing intellectual films with your movie buddies?  As I sat in front of my computer pondering the best method, I finally decided to just talk about the film and let the love shine through the words.


For years, whenever someone asked me what my favorite film was, I'd say, "I have two: The Shawshank Redemption and Top Secret!."  The former would often induce gasps of agreement.  The latter, however, would usually produce the same questions I've come to expect: "Top Secret?  I don't think I've seen it.  Which one is that?".

It had gotten to the point where I could predict the success of a relationship based on a person's reaction.  Anyone who's ever seen it, more than likely loves it and therefore "gets" me.  And it's not just a film pieced together with silly jokes; it's actually cinematic genius.  So much so, in fact, that when my classmates and I were asked to bring in an example of camera techniques for one of my film courses during college, I brought in Top Secret!.  And I'm proud to say that my choice, though scoffed at by most of the class, was eventually recognized as a proper example. (Note: I presented the underwater bar fight which is available for viewing further in this article).

Not many people would associate Val Kilmer with the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team (ZAZ as they are known to fans).  ZAZ includes Writers/Directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker.  Famous for producing spoofs such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun, ZAZ's best work is also their most secret.

Val Kilmer as "Nick Rivers"
Released in 1984, Top Secret! sees Kilmer playing it straight as Nick Rivers, a young rock star from America helping Lucy Gutteridge's character, Hillary Flammond, save her father from a German prison.  It all sounds like some kind of bad movie but surprisingly utilizes several incredible filmmaking techniques: camera perspective tricks, a parachute love scene, and an infamous underwater fight scene (with purple nurples!).


And of course there's the "Swedish" book store scene.  Kilmer and Gutteridge seek help from Peter Cushing's "Bookstore Proprietor" character.  At first, it's not entirely clear what's going on in this scene but it doesn't take long for the audience to realize that the scene is actually playing out backwards.  What's more impressive is that it's shot without any cuts.  It's choreographed beautifully, shot with expertise, and well played by all three actors...not to mention a dog.  It's scenes like this that showcase ZAZ as more than a trio of jokesters.  They know their craft and utilize every trick in the book to benefit the film.

Kilmer, Gutteridge, and Peter Cushing
And the beauty of the film is that it never takes itself too seriously nor too jokingly.  It's a healthy balance of laughs and heart.  And not only do they break the fourth wall during the film, but they also play with sound, visuals, and dialogue to trick the audience into believing something entirely different than reality.  The tricks keep the audience guessing, but more importantly, keeps them captivated.  This isn't one of those movies you can watch while texting or doing your homework; it takes all of your attention to get the most out of it.

Hillary and Nick admitting to a "bad movie"
It's no surprise ZAZ was able to get a solid cast, though sadly most of them aren't household names.  From Omar Sharif to Michael Gough to Christopher Villiers, the cast works because they're serious actors put into ridiculous situations.  It's the same strategy that ZAZ used with Leslie Nielsen in both Airplane! and The Naked Gun series: play your character straight and let the circumstance be the joke.

Omar Sharif as "Agent Cedric"
Michael Gough as "Dr. Flammond"
Christopher Villiers as "Nigel"
Another surprising element is Kilmer's contribution to the soundtrack.  As he did with his portrayal of Jim Morrison in The Doors, Kilmer lent his singing voice to Nick Rivers.  The soundtrack, though incredibly hard to find, was actually available for purchase at the time of the film's release.  (If anyone has this album, please chime in.  I'll pay top dollar for it...as long as "top dollar" means under $20.)


It's funny, it's weird, it's random, and it's absolutely impossible to write enough about Top Secret!.  Expressing my admiration for this film is truly a hard thing to put in words.  The best thing I could say is to watch it...and then watch it again...and again...and again.  And don't forget to watch the credits; as with all of the ZAZ productions, there are hidden jokes within the text.  And fortunately for us, in these credits we're also treated to an encore performance by Nick Rivers.

Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe), Déjà Vu (Jim Carter), and Nick Rivers (Kilmer) infiltrate a German prison camp
For more information about Top Secret! (and incredible trivia), visit their official IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0088286

TRIVIA: In the Swedish pizza-parlor, all the Caucasian characters have vanilla shakes, Hillary Flammond, the female character, has a strawberry shake, and Chocolate Mousse, the Black character, has a chocolate shake.

2012/02/12

Dark City

by Tony Ramos

In 1999, the Sci-Fi film The Matrix astounded film audiences worldwide with its revolutionary action sequences and unique story. It was a film that spoke of the world not being what it seemed and that most of humanity was essentially asleep; that only by awakening would humans come to see and know the truth about the world around them. A year prior to The Matrix opening, another Sci-Fi film with a similar concept, of a man who literally awakens from a sleep and discovers the world is not what it seems, also opened. The film was called Dark City, and it was directed by the very talented filmmaker Alex Proyas, who is best known for the movie The Crow.


Despite the similarity of both films having their main protagonist awakening to the truth, Dark City is a very different film to The Matrix. The most obvious difference is that Dark City is not a Sci-Fi action movie.  Instead, it is a Sci-Fi mystery/thriller film. In true mystery style, the film was shot in the film noir style, which really lets it live up to its title name, Dark City. Having made The Crow only a few years earlier, Mr. Proyas was well prepared to shoot another film that would mostly take place in a dark urban environment. His expertise and choices for camera placement throughout Dark City are amazing. There are many wonderful shots, but one that always stands out in my mind is that of when the main character, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), gently places a fish into water. Dark City also contains some impressive visual effects where buildings literally rise high out from the ground, while others shrink away or literally stretch themselves out, creating a new setting for the city and its inhabitants.

Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland)
The film opens with a black screen shot of nothing, before a star field appears on screen. Then the camera slowly begins to pan down to reveal a city's night time skyline before finally settling down on the city's dark streets, revealing Dr. Daniel P. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) overlooking a part of the city. During all of the this action, we hear the offscreen voice of Dr. Schreber explaining about “the strangers”, an ancient alien race that has mastered “the ultimate technology”: the ability to alter physical reality through will alone. Despite their powers, Dr. Schreber explains that this alien race was dying, and in an attempt to save their civilization, they abandoned their home to find a cure for their mortality. This journey into the stars led them to Earth, where these “strangers” feel they may have found the answers to their quest in human beings.

John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell)
After this great introduction, we soon meet the main protagonist, John Murdoch, who is sleeping in a bathtub in which he suddenly awakens, naked and with amnesia. John does not know where he is, what is going on, nor even his name. This begins John's search for the truth. First, to figure out who he is, and then to figure out who these “strangers” are and why or how they have the ability to alter the city's landscape and its inhabitants lives. This altering is something the “strangers” do every day at twelve o'clock; also the time when everyone in this city (that never sees any daylight), fall asleep while the changes in the city and to them are occurring. The only person who does not sleep, and thus cannot be altered by these “strangers”, is John, who soon discovers his own ability to alter physical reality causing the “strangers” to now see him as a threat. To add to his problems, John is also on the lam from Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt), who believes John is the man responsible for the murder of several prostitutes throughout the city. The only person who seems to want to help him is a woman named Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) who claims to be his wife, although because of his amnesia, he doesn't remember. John's attempt to keep his sanity while on the run from everybody ultimately leads him to an explosive climax and the truth about the entire city itself.

Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly)
As I stated before, this a film that, for obvious reasons, I can compare to The Matrix, but the differences between the two is what makes this film unique unto itself. It is a film in which after the protagonist awakens, he is not explained to, everything about the reality in which he now finds himself in in just one scene. John has to figure out for himself who he is and what is going on, all the while trying to evade aliens and humans who are after him. As he begins discovering the truth, we the audience curiously follow him, and this is what makes the film a pleasure to watch. Like any true mystery movie, this film will also benefit from multiple viewings.

Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt)
An always impressive William Hurt is smooth as Inspector Bumstead. The beautiful Jennifer Connelly plays Emma Murdoch with a subtle frustration yet loving compassion for her confused husband, John. While Kiefer Sutherland's slightly mad scientist portrayal of Dr. Schreber almost steals the movie as the only human who knows the entire truth about the "strangers" and the city from the very beginning. In the beginning of the film, John Murdoch is scared and confused, but slowly with his determination he begins gaining confidence and strength, something we can clearly see thanks to Rufus Sewell's fine performance. Also notable is Colin Friels who plays the character Detective Eddie Walenski, who, like John, also discovers the truth about the city, but can never quite put it all together, thus causing him his sanity.


Dark City is a film that so impressed well known American movie critic, Roger Ebert, that he offered to give his own commentary on one of the film's DVD audio tracks. With Dark City, Alex Proyas made a film that, although initially received poorly at the box office, now has a cult following. Still, it is a beautiful film with a great story that definitely deserves a second look by not only Sci-Fi fans, but all movie fans, especially by those who might know of it but have never seen it.

For more information visit their IMBb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118929/

2012/02/05

Mel Parsons

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


Cover of Parsons' latest album, "Red Grey Blue"
I found Mel Parsons' music through a series of coincidences.  I was on a website looking up a creative business in the Milwaukee, WI area when, out of curiosity, I clicked on a podcast that was linked to on that site.  After shuffling through nearly a dozen different artists and listening to snippets of just as many songs, I landed on Parsons' performance.  Hailing from New Zealand, she had been in the States when the set was recorded at an open mic/jam series.  I don't recall what songs Parsons played, but they caught my interest enough for me to close out the podcast after her performance was over and to look her up.  "Darlin' Darlin"" was the first clip that I found, and I was instantly taken in by the light-hearted playfulness of the video and Parsons' rich vocals.



"Still Life" was the next video I found, and the pensive and melancholy tone of this song was a nice contrast to the more pop music sound of "Darlin' Darlin"".  For a brand new fan like me, it showcased the wider range present in Parsons' songwriting, and the dichotomy of emotions in her work was something that I could relate to very easily.  By this time, I was intrigued enough that I wanted to find out about the background of this artist, so I searched for an official website to learn more.



I immediately discovered that Mel Parsons isn't new to the music scene. She grew up on the rural West Coast of New Zealand, and has spent the past ten years travelling and touring, segueing some of those experiences into material for her work. Parsons has been influenced by a variety of artists including Crosby, Stills & Nash, Mumford and Sons, Dire Straits, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young.  She released her debut album, "Over My Shoulder", in 2009, and it was nominated for the Folk Album of the Year in the New Zealand Music Awards that same year.  Though her music has a discernible folk aspect, it would be a shame and a mistake to simply lump it in to that, or any, category.  The song "Pleasure and Pain" is jazzier, with some listeners possibly detecting just a slight tinge of rockabilly.  All of Parsons' music has a certain quality about it though, as if she's glad to sit back and share her stories of happiness, along with heartache that made her waver.  Even in the case of songs that take on a more serious tone, you feel that ultimately, she'll be all right, and regain her balance in the end.  It's that down to earth and living real life point of view that appeals to me.  Parsons isn't existing in some superstardom bubble that leaves her out of touch with the grittiness of daily life.  Instead, she slogs along just like the rest of us, and comes through it with grace and a healthy dose of humor.

Mel Parsons (photo credit: Max Lemeshenko)
As Parsons created her second, and latest, album "Red Grey Blue" over the course of the summer and autumn months of 2011, she worked with a host of musicians, many of them well-known in New Zealand and abroad.  The finished product doesn't sound overproduced though, and the intimate quality of Parsons' work remains.  Following in the steps of its predecessor, the album was also nominated for the New Zealand Music Awards' Folk Album of the Year, this time for 2011.

I feel like I happened upon Parsons' music at just the right time.  There are two albums for me to go back and delve into, and I can still follow her career as it continues to develop from here out.  I'm encouraged by the fact that she seems to visit the States on a somewhat regular basis (based on the US-recorded podcast mentioned earlier and that her video for the song "I Won't Let You Down" was shot in San Francisco).  I'd jump at the chance to see her play live if she happens to tour here in the future.

To discover more of Parsons' work for yourself by hearing selected tracks from both of her albums, read a more complete bio, get current news and more, head over to her personal website at  http://www.melparsons.com/, and look up her page on Facebook.  You can also find both "Over My Shoulder" and "Red Grey Blue" on iTunes.