Tag Archives: Francis Ford Coppola

Anthologies: Four Rooms

By Nathanael Griffis

Sometimes called vignette films, anthology films are a genre of a film I greatly lack in. I haven’t watched many except the two big ones, Sin City and Pulp Fiction, which are probably the most well-know examples. To put it simply, anthology films are a collection of short films, or vignettes if you will, that somehow connect together. I want to make a distinction between anthology and montage films like Babel, Crash, or Magnolia. Montage films tend to be one overarching story built together from different perspectives. Anthology films are separate stories that may share some similar qualities, but do not have to form a cohesive narrative. Take Pulp Fiction, for example: the stories are connected by having cross-over characters, but each vignette could be its own stand-alone film.

I love Pulp Fiction and Sin City, but to be honest, that’s about where my knowledge of anthology films ends. Embarrassing I know, but anthology films are not mainstream to be honest. They’re hard to find, but provide an interesting change of pace for filmgoers. One of the things I love about them is that they give a chance for legendary filmmakers to collaborate, like New York Stories where Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese each directed one story. They can examine a single theme with various tones of drama or comedy. There’s a chance for greatness, and if one of the stories sucks you know another, hopefully better one is coming soon. My goal is to watch around six to ten anthology films and explore the themes, successes, and failures of this little watched genre.

To begin, I started with Four Rooms, a film I’d heard little about but was pleasantly surprised to watch. As you might guess it’s about four stories in four rooms. What initially attracted me was the directors and cast, which is a normal draw to anthology film. Four Rooms was directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. The last two names really drew my attention. Four Rooms was made in 1995, when Rodriguez and Tarantino were still just making names for themselves. The basic premise is that a bellhop, played by the wonderful Tim Roth, is left alone for what becomes an absolutely insane night as he deals with one room full of unexpected occurrences after the next. As is to be expected, each segment revolves around a particular room and their residents.

They flow nicely for the most part except for the first segment, “The Missing Ingredient.” Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed with anthology films is that one weak segment can sour all the rest. At the very least it feels like a wasted 15 minutes. “The Missing Ingredient” starts with Madonna asking the hapless bellhop Ted for the honeymoon suite. Soon other all-female guests start to arrive, representing varying degrees of stereotypical characters with accents, from the Southern belle to the Midwestern fifties girl to the prim and proper strong East Coast woman. It turns out that these women are a coven of witches trying to revive their cursed deity, but one of them has forgotten a certain ingredient. A certain ingredient that Ted can provide. I’d avoid spoilers, but it’s kinda painfully obvious. This segment just feels out of place, and Madonna is distractingly awful in skin tight leather literally spending a few minutes bending over in front of the camera in deliberate slow motion. It also isn’t funny and is basically skimming the surface of sex jokes. It seems to be on a rush to get to the punch line, but begrudgingly needs to fill up 15 minutes so they show some boobs, read some poetry, have a strange animation moment, and call it good.

It wasn’t until the end of the entire film, though, that I noticed the true flaw of this segment. It’s not about Ted, or doesn’t feature him enough, which is so sad, because the single great thing about this film is that it reminds me Tim Roth is an astounding actor. I’ve never really seen him do comedy and he pulls off an off-kilter-in-a-good-way physical performance that should really be studied. His character grows and changes but tries to remain composed as his night becomes increasingly chaotic. He has so many equally charming and somewhat disturbing physical quirks that are just sheer pleasure to watch. The simple way his character walks is hilarious. To see him pull a 90-degree turn from being stabbed with needle and running out of a burning room to answering the phone in a polite British accent is astounding. It’s fascinating that his character remains pretty static in performance across the board in each segment. It makes me wonder who decided to write his character that way and how much the four directors collaborated. This is definitely a distinctly comedic film. It has a fascinating 50′s/60’s  sense of comedy–with a Pink Panther-esque animated opening even–but with a 90’s presentation and topics.

Jennifer Beals, Paul Calderon, Tim Roth, Quentin Tarantino, & Bruce Willis in a movie--that's a good thing.

Because you’ll want to know, here’s a rundown of the other segments. The second segment is where the film really gets going. It takes a distinctly dark turn with “The Wrong Man,” directed by Alexandre Rockwell, a director who’s managed to stay off everyone’s radar. Ted the bellhop walks into the wrong room and is mistaken for a the lover of deranged man’s wife. The comedy in this scene is extremely dark and a bit unsettling at first, but it fits with the other two segments a lot better than “The Missing Ingredient.” Also, there’s a lot more of Tim Roth, so it’s exceedingly better. “The Misbehavers,” directed by Robert Rodriquez, is basically what would happen if Rodriguez made one of his kids’ films rated R. The final scene is a ridiculous send-off to screwball comedies with a wonderful punchline from Antonio Banderas to boot.

The real treat is the final segment, “The Man from Hollywood,” with trademark Tarantino dialogue and characters. It moves forward slowly, building tension constantly yet realistically. I don’t want to give away too much, but will say thing it’s inspired by Roald Dahl’s Man from the South and an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode of the same nameif you know either of those you’ll understand the plot almost immediately. Interestingly, the characters in Four Rooms get the name of the Alfred Hitchcock short wrong. The short is definitely worth checking out, considering it stars Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen. What’s really impressive about “The Man from Hollywood” is what Tarantino does with the camera. Overall, with the exception of the first segment, the cinematography is astounding for such short films. It’s really something in “The Man from Hollywood”–there are long one-take shots, close-ups, monologues, and dizzying crane shots, but they coalesce. The only problem is that Tarantino again insists on placing himself into the lead acting spot, which is hit-and-miss. He’s such a larger-than-life character that he sometimes seems to leave his character behind and just be himself. I’m glad that in subsequent films he’s stayed in the director’s chair.

Overall this is a surprisingly good introduction for my newest genre foray. I found it to be really funny and engaging. It’s wonderful to see different directors lending their hands to inventive stories. If only the first bit hadn’t been there, or had focused more on Tim Roth. Any moment Roth is on screen is really quite wonderful, as is the rest of the cast which includes Marisa Tomei, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Beals, and Paul Calderon.

Next I’m going to stay with comedic anthology films and watch David Wain’s The Ten.

The Old Toy Chest — Captain EO

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I simply can’t remember a time when Michael Jackson’s presence wasn’t everywhere (except for these past two years, of course). I wasn’t a fan; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to his music when I was a kid. My mother found him disgusting, what with all the crotch-grabbing and whatnot, but since we had a TV in the house (yep, just one), being influenced by the man and his music was inescapable even for a sheltered kid like me.

As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for Jackson’s work. I’m still not what you’d call a fan, but I love certain songs of his, like “Billie Jean,” “Rock with You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” I have Thriller in my library, and I appreciate that Jackson pioneered the long-form music video with the title track of that album. But to this day, I’ve always kind of thought of him as Captain EO.

That's not a special effect on Michael's shoulder. That's the idea fairy that would whisper into his ear and drive him to do things.

Captain EO was probably the only Michael Jackson product I was allowed by my parents (begrudgingly, I’m sure) to embrace as a child; after all, it was the cool new thing at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and we were on vacation. Various Disney parks were the only places you could see the 17-minute short film — in the first example of “4D” (innovated by the film’s writer/producer Rusty Lemorande), in which the film is shot and exhibited in 3D and supplemented with in-theater effects to amplify the experience. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with a score by James Horner and two new songs by Jackson, and featuring Anjelica Huston as the villainous Supreme Leader (though it’s never explained why the “leader” of the good guys is the villain), the film has a lot of pedigree.

I recently re-watched Captain EO, having seen it before only once in the 80′s. And I have to say… pedigree ain’t everything.

The film opens on a shot of a meteor spinning slowly through outer space toward the camera… IN 3D!!! Suddenly a laser blast reduces it to astro-dust and a quaint-looking spaceship flies into view. Once inside the ship, we find that it’s populated by various Muppet rejects. (This would have been a perfect venue for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. However, the Jim Henson Company had nothing to do with the production. Captain EO was released as a Disney parks attraction in 1986; the Walt Disney Company did not acquire the Muppets until 1989. Two years later, they unveiled Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios, which itself was only two years old. It was another example of the Disney Imagineers’ pioneering “4D” technology, and is overall a much better film experience than our current subject.)

These pseudo-Muppets make a lot of noise until they are silenced by the entrance of our hero — Captain EO himself. How this captain came to have such a strange crew of small aliens and robots is anyone’s guess. Captain EO immediate commands the room with his boyish, almost whining, “Listen!”

Clearly inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien design. Later inspired the design of the Borg Queen. And so we are all connected in the great circle of sci-fi.

Michael Jackson really looks like he’s trying hard to act, like he’s aware every second that he’s in a movie. Actually, it’s more like he looks like he’s constantly thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in a cool science fiction movie! The Star Wars guy is sitting right over there! Eee-heee!” then does a twirl, and throws his jacket off his shoulders and then flips it back on again — only, you know, in his head. In the meantime, he’s squeakily commanding his crew. The arrival of enemy craft trying to shoot them down only makes his voice squeakier. Michael Jackson’s squeak-singing always annoyed me, though he was a great singer underneath it all. His line-readings, however…

Commander Bog shows up on some sort of holographic intercom, and the actor playing him, Dick Shawn (himself known more as a singer), manages to ham it up with just his face more than Pauly Shore ever could with his entire body. Bog commands the crew to complete their mission: to locate some homing beacon, find the Supreme Leader (again, why they need to find their own leader is never explained), and give her some mysterious “gift.”

There’s some blatant Star Wars rip-off scenes (Lucas is one of the few who can rip off his own movies) as EO’s ship somehow manages to out-fly all the enemy ships and literally land on the homing beacon. To make a 17-minute story short, the crew is kidnapped by a bunch of stormtroopers in a junkyard and taken to the Supreme Leader, who lives in a dark industrial complex of some sort and turns out to be a spider-like woman who drops out of the ceiling like one of the Alien aliens and sentences EO to 100 years of torture and his crew to death.

EO finally unveils his “gift” — and it turns out his “gift” is an on-the-spot music video for “We Are Here to Change the World.” Michael Jackson’s — uh, I mean, Captain EO’s — sheer awesomeness is enough to turn the Supreme Leader’s troops into groovy background dancers. After some poorly choreographed tussles with some tougher bad guys, EO goes back to dancing and finally uses the power of song to turn the Supreme Leader into Anjelica Huston. The ugly industrial setting melts into a bland paradise not unlike the Mount Olympus of the old Clash of the Titans.

Michael's "gift" to the Supreme Leader -- and, as we are meant to believe, to the world.

And EO and his crew dance off into the sunset.

I imagine a lot of this was more impressive on a big screen with 3D glasses on and special effects literally moving through the theater, but just as a film, it’s really cheesy. It’s a glorified music video, and not one of Jackson’s better, which is a pity considering it’s directed by the man who gave us The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. And it has some of the trippiest imagery this side of a David Lynch film.

My recollection of seeing Captain EO as a little boy is a mix of wonder and embarrassment — leaning much more heavily toward the embarrassment, mostly as a result of all the lascivious dancing and my mother sitting right there disapproving. Plus, I have a vague memory of being a little uneasy over the appearance and tone of the Supreme Leader. I remember the whole thing being very dark in tone, but of course at the time I liked the annoying little not-Muppets. What can I say, I was a kid in the 80s — I thought neon-colored baggy pants and slap bracelets were awesome.

Captain EO may not be a good film, but it does deserve to be remembered as a unique pop culture artifact. It’s definitely representative of its time and place, for better or worse. And though it is not currently available in any official capacity for home viewing, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in boring old 2D) here.

Still hard to believe these three ever sat in a room together.

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On Trial: Case #001 – Tom Cruise

The Defense, presented by Nathanael Griffis

There is a viewpoint floating out in the ether that Tom Cruise is a bad actor, that he doesn’t make good movies, that he’s annoying, that he’s a crazy goofball. I respectfully and forcefully disagree (though I may not be able to argue against the last point). His ridiculous running style aside, Tom Cruise is a fantastic actor. He’s been nominated for three Oscars and seven Golden Globes (of which he’s won three), and numerous other accolades. He’s shown range in comedies, dramas, and genre films. Most of the criticism of his acting is that he’s too passionate–that he doesn’t have subtlety or the ability to lose himself in a role. Basically, he yells a lot, and this is all people remember. The reason they remember it, though, is because he is amazing at playing a character that lets his emotions build up and then explode. If anything, he has probably been typecast in these roles, but he wrote the book on releasing emotion on screen (not literally). He does take roles that require more subtle touches: Rain Man, Eyes Wide Shut, & Interview with the Vampire come to mind.

If you simply go through his filmography, the resume he’s accumulated is staggering. The directors he’s worked with are the best: Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, both Ridley and Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Edward Zwick, Michael Mann; and I’ve left some out. I think a lot of the criticism of Tom Cruise comes from his off-screen activities. There also seems to be this ridiculous notion that he’s an action star, which is a sneaky way of trying to lump him in with sub-par actors. The truth is that in real life just about everyone’s a little strange. We all do and say crazy things. If you look at the things he’s done, chewing out cameramen or Matt Lauer, it’s not all that deplorable. He’s also barely an action star. Sure he’s done the Mission: Impossible movies, but that’s only a recent development. Minority Report has some action in it, but with the exception of the Mission: Impossible franchise, even his action-packed films, like Collateral, rely on strong story and characters.

What normally happens with criticism of an actor of Mr. Cruise’s caliber is that the whiny internet trolls have to begrudgingly qualify their insults with some phrase like “A Few Good Men was awesome, though.” The evidence speaks louder than the cover of the National Enquirer claiming Tom Cruise is a big meany. So, I leave you with his filmography for you to view and eventually accept that Tom Cruise makes amazing films. He’s here to stay and will be remembered. Perhaps this fact only builds a greater stubborn jealousy in his critics, but I’m willing to risk it.

Selected* films of Tom Cruise:

Taps (1981)

The Outsiders (1983)

Risky Business (1983)

Legend (1985)

Top Gun (1986)

The Color of Money (1986)

Cocktail (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Far and Away (1992)

A Few Good Men (1992)

The Firm (1993)

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Minority Report (2002)

The Last Samurai (2003)

Collateral (2004)

War of the Worlds (2005)

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Valkyrie (2008)

Knight and Day (2010)

*Some films have been excluded from this list because of their lack of notoriety and for space concerns.

The Prosecution, presented by Steven Moore

Never mind that Tom Cruise is kind of a dick in his personal life. If an actor is a douche in real life, it has no bearing on how talented they are or how well they perform their roles. Never mind that Tom Cruise has been in some of the best movies ever made. His film canon is impressive, and he repeatedly chooses films that are amazing. (Who can forget the game-changing Legend). Never mind that Tom Cruise is one of the greatest talents in stunt work of our generation. All that’s beside the point.

Tom Cruise just sucks. That’s all. I see a trailer for a movie he’s going to be in, and I immediately have no interest in seeing it. Something about the guy just makes me want to go anywhere his face isn’t. You can argue that I’m just jealous of a five-foot-tall psychopathic control freak who constantly has to try to re-ingratiate himself to polite society, but I’m not alone. We are legion. When I’m at a function where I don’t know anyone, all I need to do is throw out an “Ugh, I hear Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out.” The ball only starts rolling from there. Soon a crowd is gathered, and we unite as brothers and sisters of humanity through our mutual disgust of Mr. Cruise.

It’s not rational. It’s not even fair. But it’s damn near universal. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a man who hacks his way into the heart of an unexplored jungle. There he finds creatures whose very presence trigger a flight response in him. When he tries to fight it, he begins vomiting uncontrollably. There is no reason for him to feel this way. The creatures are tiny, harmless, and benevolent. Tom Cruise is like that: tiny and harmless (not sure about the benevolent part), but something about him makes my skin, and a lot of other people’s skin, crawl. Oh, and in the story, the creatures turn out to be the real earthlings, while we are descendants from Martians. I think the conclusion is pretty obvious there. I rest my case.

A Year of Movies

3. 30 Days of Night (2007)

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, Manu Bennett, Megan Franich. Screenplay by Steve Niles and Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson; adapted from the comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. Directed by David Slade.

Sunday, January 2, 23:00.

Nate had shown up part-way through About a Boy. After spending time going over our podcast archives (which is a hilarious thing to do), we sat down to watch one of the few good vampire movies, 30 Days of Night. This is possibly the only really good vampire film of the past decade. Going back further, there was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula in 1992, Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire in 1994, and 2000′s Shadow of the Vampire. Good vampire films are rare, and they’re becoming rarer. I saw 30 Days of Night at the cinema when it first came out three years ago, and even then I remember being thankful for a good vampire movie. I liked it then, and after my second viewing, I still like it, though now I am more aware of its pacing and timeline problems. I can cut a film a lot of slack if it offers something unique in its vision and style, and 30 Days of Night does that. Hartnett and George are good protagonists, and Danny Huston is one of the all-time scariest villains. Netflix rating: 4/5 stars. IMDb rating: 8/10 stars. Flickchart rank: 652/2174 films (Top 1000). Learn more about the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389722/

–Tom Kapr