Archive | September 2015

Movie Review: Equestria Girls – Friendship Games

A couple years ago, many fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, grew incensed that Hasbro was planning to do an iteration of the show, taking place in a humanized world.

The result was My Little Pony: Equestria Girls. While the first film was given a marginal pass by many based on it’s seemingly simplistic storyline, the vehemency of the MLP fandom seemed to largely die away when its sequel, Rainbow Rocks, took its characters and story to another level. The film introduced some catchy new songs by Daniel Ingram, and helped elevate the character of Sunset Shimmer to becoming the Twilight Sparkle of this world. But, as some saw at the end of Rocks, there is a Twilight Sparkle in this world…and she is curious about some strange powers emanating from Canterlot High School.

That final scene piqued many people’s interests, though in the lead-up to the third (and final?) installment of the Equestria Girls series, one had to wonder if Equestria Girls: Friendship Games, could carry on the momentum from the previous installments, and provide a third film that could stand on its own.

__________

Since the events of Rainbow Rocks, Sunset Shimmer, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy, have seen their magical powers grow. Now, instead of materializing while just playing their musical instruments, the girls seem to have little control over when they ‘pony up.’

Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna ask Sunset Shimmer to investigate why this is happening, with the goal to make sure that these unusual powers are repressed, in time for The Friendship Games.

The event pits Canterlot High School, against their cross-city rivals, Crystal Prep Academy. It occurs every 4 years, and since the beginning of the games, Crystal Prep has always won.

As Canterlot prepares, many are surprised when Twilight Sparkle shows up, though this is the human-world’s Twilight, who attends Crystal Prep. Being more of an isolated bookworm, Twilight is mainly entered into the games, at the behest of Crystal Prep’s Principal, Abacus Cinch.

Twilight hopes the time at Canterlot High can also help her learn more about the magic she’s found emanating from the school, but her curiosity soon leads to unexpected side-effects.

__________

I’m not sure what the deal is with Friendship Games, but even with plenty of previews, and word-of-mouth, it feels like the enthusiasm for the film and its story, has been a little more ‘dulled’ than the previous film.

The film is also the first one that shuts out pretty much all of the Friendship is Magic connections to the television series, with all of the film’s energy largely focused on just this world. Sunset Shimmer is seen attempting to contact Twilight a couple of times in Equestria, but her inquiries go un-answered, leaving her more frustrated as she attempts to solve the ‘pony up’ mystery on her own.

Unlike the previous two films, Games has a new writer at the helm. This time it’s Josh Haber, following his stint writing 4 episodes for the Friendship is Magic television series.

I do commend Mr Haber for pulling Rainbow Dash out of the ‘awesomely egotistical jerk’ mode that she found herself in from the first two Meghan McCarthy-written films. However, even with Rainbow getting a character ‘upgrade,’ it feels like the other girls in the group (sans Sunset) are just there out of ‘contractual obligation.’

Even certain areas of the story seem to suffer from logic holes. Several of the skills involved in the Friendship Games focus on sporting events, which it seems all of our ‘mane’ cast somehow have knowledge of…though when they found time to practice archery and motocross racing, is beyond me.

With an added stable of new characters from Crystal Prep, one would assume we’d get some more time to see just what they’re all about, character-wise. In the end, it seems that it doesn’t matter, since the majority of the student body are just snarky/snooty private schoolers. Twilight is supposedly the best student in this school academically, but every other student in the school just treats her as an inferior, to which I kept wondering, “why?”

The film is also the first that the bad guy isn’t on the same age level as the girls. In this case, the role of bad guy falls to Crystal Prep’s principal, Abacus Cinch (voiced by Iris Quinn). Her character is basically the standard ‘stick-in-the-mud’ who wants her institution to be the best. Fortunately, we’re saved from the usual ‘we’ve cheated for years’ subplot that would be obvious, though she doesn’t fail to use some blackmail to get Twilight to participate in the games. One would assume Cinch would want her participating students to be knowledgeable in a number of things, so they’d be better all-around in the games…but, we need to find some way to get human-world Twilight into them.

Twilight and Sunset seem to be the focus of the story, but it just feels that it’s held up largely with a lot of flimsy storytelling to make the entire thing seem important. It feels to me that there could have been a more meaningful way to get the story’s message across, rather than making a lot of the supporting players just ‘being there,’ or seem moreso another excuse to make lots of toy dolls to sell in stores.

On a positive note, Daniel Ingram returns to this world, with some more catchy songs. Whereas the last film went all out with its Rock-n-Roll angle, it feels like he’s channeling a mixture of High School Musical and Wicked here, with a teeny-tiny hint of Daft Punk thrown in.

One thing that’s eye-catching, is that the animation has taken another step forward. Walk cycles, character models, and much more have been improved on. The characters also have a better range of emotional movement, with human-world Twilight benefiting the most for her characterization as a mousey over-achiever.

Third films in a trilogy can often be problematic. More times than not, they will end on a low note. Friendship Games tries to somehow balance itself as a final entity, but draws energy and scenarios from its previous films, and that might be hard to ignore for some people. Those previous scenarios will probably leave many with a combined reaction of “wow,” and “aww, a-gain!?”

Final Grade: B- (Friendship Games becomes a middle-of-the-road trilogy-capper for the “Equestria Girls” movie series. Its title almost hints about making friends with your rivals, but instead, seems to focus moreso on following the thread that was started at the end of “Rainbow Rocks.” The revelation regarding this world’s Twilight Sparkle will surely draw people in, but it doesn’t feel enough to balance out the lackadaisical games subplot of the film’s title. Even so, Daniel Ingram’s music will give you at least a track or two to bop along to, and the continuing character development of Sunset Shimmer, makes one almost want to see more of her after the film is over…though we still are left to wonder where her ‘human-world’ counterpart is)

Episode Review: Star vs The Forces of Evil (Season 1, Episode 13) – Storm The Castle

Life moves in mysterious ways. This past Spring, I found myself wandering around online, and came across the summary for a DisneyXD show titled, Star vs The Forces of Evil.

My interest piqued, I watched the first few episodes, and soon found myself along for the ride…even buying a season pass to the show on iTunes: something I’ve never done with any other show!

The adventures of inter-dimensional Princess Star Butterfly, and her Earth friend Marco Diaz, has sent us into strange dimensions where we’ve met plenty of stranger characters, but unlike some shows like Gravity Falls or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, its two-segments-per-episode style tended to play fast and loose with its rules, let alone character and backstory development.

And now, after over 6 months, and numerous hiatuses, the 13th and final episode of Season 1, is upon us.

Well, I’ve yammered enough, onto the review!…which, will, have even more yammering…yeah.

__________

Storm The Castle

Storm The Castle

After Star and Marco have a falling out over her actions during a recent inter-dimensional romp, Star attempts to patch things up…only to find that Marco has been kidnapped, and taken to Ludo’s castle!

Going back to her dimension, she comes across the recently-exiled Ludo and Buff Frog, who she forms an unlikely alliance with. It is also the first time Star is informed about who is now in control of Ludo’s castle, and his minions: the enigmatic lizard-monster, named Toffee.

There have been rumblings about this episode for some time, not just in the fact that it’s 20+ minutes long, but that it would definitely be a game-changer going forward in the world of the show.

One of the most unpredictable things about the show, is knowing what will go forward, and what will be shrugged off by the time the next episode goes on.  So far, Storm feels like the first episode where several things that have taken place, will be solid story points going forward.

The highlight of the episode to me, is definitely Toffee. We’ve only gotten the faintest of information about him over three previous segments, but in this episode, we get a few revelations about his character…while still keeping some of his mysteries open for future thought. One of the worst things a bad guy can do is wear a self-assured smirk, and Toffee just never seems to run out of them here.

The show also raises a question regarding Ludo, that has been in the back of my brain for a few episodes now: what if Ludo is little more than a child? Toffee at one point tells one of the minions, “I’m an adult,” which leads me to this conclusion, not to mention how Ludo is largely foiled so easily. Oftentimes he rarely thinks through what he’s going to do, and largely whines about everything.

There also is some minor continuity between Star Butterfly and Buff Frog, that seemed to almost tie into a brief scene in the episode 11 segment, Mewnipendence Day. Though Buff has been faithful to Ludo for a long time, it feels like he will most definitely go down a new path in his life, given some added responsibility he has taken on.

I’m one of those people that is often about the dramatics, and I must say the episode delivered in areas that I wished could have happened with Episode 10’s St Olga’s episode. Eden Sher can definitely hit some emotional areas with her voice in regards to Star, and here it works well in a few specific scenes.

Even Brian H Kim comes through with a musical score that really ups the ante in some fight scenes, and then manages to hit emotional softness regarding a major moment. The music that really caught my ear, sounded like something that came from the synthesizer-heavy 80’s, but mixed in with the melancholy tinkle of a music box. I think if you see this episode, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The storyboard artists and writers have given us some decent gags in the past, but it felt like in regards to this story, it was hard to find a harmonic balance between the serious tones, and the humor at times. This has been the trip-up in a few other episodes I’ve seen over the season, though luckily, the stakes and main focus of the story don’t derail it completely.

Some will probably see the episode as some form of stepping stone towards both Star and Marco having a relationship, but to me, I see it moreso as a story that cements Star realizing a little more how important their friendship is, let alone realizing on a larger scale, what her actions can now entail to those around her, both on her Homeworld, and on Earth.

Final segment grade: B+

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Oh wait, I just sounded Irish. Ok, he wasn't Irish-write that down.

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “Oh wait, I just sounded Irish. Ok, he wasn’t Irish-write that down.”

__________

Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Buff Frog, aka Yvgeny Bulgoyaboff): “Ludo gave me babies.”

Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Buff Frog, aka Yvgeny Bulgoyaboff): “Ludo gave me babies.”

In the end, the season finale of Star vs The Forces of Evil, definitely puts into perspective how far the show has come. From a hyperventilating Princess eagerly taking control of her family’s Royal Wand, to a situation where she must consider its use in the form of helping a friend, Star Butterfly’s ‘training’ seems to have definitely opened her eyes to a number of different experiences.

Storm The Castle also seems to add more questions to throw onto the pile of the couple dozen we’ve accumulated since the show began. Even so, a few little things we probably never considered, are answered in this episode (such as the first name of Star’s Father, for example).

The wand and its capabilities to both Mewnians and Monsters, continues to be a mystery…though with what befalls it in the episode’s final act, is something that will have us speculating for awhile…and the last image of the episode I feel, may hold some clues as to what direction a portion of Season 2 might head into. Maybe those clues can be “built” into something…intriguing.

*And so, it is done. A first for my blog, in that I’ve reviewed an entire season of a show…and the first Season of “DisneyXD’s” latest show has drawn its curtains, for now. However, I won’t be going away from the show just yet. There’s still some information that I can put into speculative postings, let-alone compile some ‘Best-of/Worst-of’ lists for various episodes. I’ll surely have something soon, much in the same vein as my previously questioning blog post about certain elements we saw in the first 5 episodes. Much like my ‘Animated Dissections’ on the films of Studio Ghibli, there’s plenty of unanswered questions to puzzle over regarding “Star vs The Forces of Evil”*

Movie Review: Big Game

(Rated PG – 13 for sequences of intense action and violence, and some language)

Much like horror, action films are a genre that I am often wary to tread into. It can often take a little extra ‘oomph’ on the part of the filmmaker, to make me want to go into an action film. Sometimes, it can be the association of a trusted name (like Brad Bird’s involvement in the Mission:Impossible series), or treating your lead as an average Joe (like in the case of the first Die Hard film).

In 2010, a Finnish film called Rare Exports, became a cult-hit. The film was made by brothers Jalmari, and Juso Helande, and set around Christmas time. The plot centered around a strange excavation project, that soon seemed to threaten a nearby village. The brother’s concept was a little like the style of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment productions, in that you would have extraordinary things happen to ordinary people…albeit in Finnish surroundings.

4 years later, Jalmari Helander released his next film, though bringing in more of an American angle to the “extraordinary” portions of his latest project.

__________

In Finland, a young boy named Oskari (Onni Tommila) is set to begin his village’s rite of passage. He is sent out into the nearby mountains, with the task of hunting down a wild animal. His kill will prove to those in his village, that he has reached manhood. Though many doubt the young boy can complete his task, Oskari’s father Tapio (Onni’s real-life father, Jorma Tommila) believes his son can do it.

As Oskari makes his way into the forest, his journey takes an unexpected turn, when Air Force One crashes through the trees, and Oskari finds an escape pod, wherein inside he finds President William Alan Moore (Samuel L Jackson).

Moore wishes for Oskari to take him back to civilization, but the young boy refuses, until he has completed his task. As they continue on their way, they soon discover that there are other people in the woods, that seem to be hunting bigger game than what Oskari is looking for.

President William Moore (Samuel L Jackson), finds himself in the protective hands of a boy named Oskari (Onni Tommila)

Helander’s films can get a little hokey in places, but thankfully, he doesn’t quite reach the levels of eye-rolling I achieved with recent “President-in-danger” films like Olympus Has Fallen, or White House Down.

While Sam Jackson’s name on the film may make some immediately assume he’s going to be playing a President that could rival Harrison Ford’s in the 1997 film Air Force One, Jackson’s character isn’t much of a fighter. He can talk a little tough at times, but he is most definitely out of his element in the Finnish wilderness.

Onni Tommila’s performance almost rehashes his character from Rare Exports: a small boy, whose almond eyes seem to convey a person who when push-comes-to-shove, will not back down from a challenge.

Both Oskari and William find a common ground, in that society doesn’t expect much from them, but deep-down, they are trying to prove themselves. The film has a few decent person-to-person exchanges, that while not emotionally groundbreaking, help us to flesh out the characters a little better than most films. This is definitely crucial, considering the film gets its business done in just a little over an hour-and-a-half.

One would almost expect a lot of bickering and whining between the two (since they’re from two different worlds), but thankfully, Helander doesn’t fall into that typical American movie trap. Both come to a consensus soon that they need each other, and that cooperation is the key to their survival.

Tasked with rescuing the President (though feet firmly on American soil), are the Vice President (Victor Garber), the CIA Director (Felicity Huffman), former Secret Service agent Herbert (Jim Broadbent), and General Underwood (Ted Levine)

The film also gives us a war room scenario in Washington DC, with the Vice President (Victor Garber) and the CIA Director (Felicity Huffman), bringing in a retired Secret Service agent (Jim Broadbent), as a liaison to assist. These scenes have a lot of lingo being thrown around, and it’s a little like the crisis center scenes in The Bourne Ultimatum, but without much getting done (and without the constant editing and shaky-cam). I almost feel like we could excise this portion of the film. Though it does show the American forces looking for the Commander-in-Chief, it often feels like it could just be something that you imagine going on in the back of your mind, as you follow Oskari and William’s story.

What may drive some people a little nuts about Big Game, is the amount of layers under the story. I was at least glad that that there was more than just the 3 I uncovered, but they may have gone a little overboard on a few others.

One fun bit of camerawork. are all the vistas of the wilderness, with the environments being shot with beautiful panning shots, reminding one of the vistas we saw in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.

Rare Exports showcased a gritty, yet intriguing use of visual effects, and I will admit that the effects work here is pretty good as well. The shots of Air Force One in flight are beautiful, and seem to have a realism that one seldom believes from work on American productions. Nothing ever gets overly-shiny or under-detailed like some productions, but then again, the filmmakers don’t work too far outside of what the effects are meant to convey.

__________

When I first heard about the concept of this film, I eagerly looked forward to seeing it in theaters…only to grow disappointed that even with Sam Jackson playing The President, noone expanded it beyond an extremely-low theatrical run. I would have had to journey far beyond the city into the suburbs, to find the only theater showing it this summer.

It’s sad, because the film is probably one of the best “President in a bad situation” films in awhile. There’s something decidedly Air Force One about some areas, but it manages to not get too convoluted like Olympus Has Fallen, or rely on the bland ‘coincidence-ad-nauseam’ style of Roland Emmerich’s films like Independence Day, or White House Down.

__________

Final Grade: B- (Final Thoughts: “Big Game” isn’t quite as entertaining as Jalmari Helander’s last film outing, but it should definitely be considered one of the most entertaining popcorn flicks of the Summer of 2015, that noone saw. Onni Tommila and Samuel L Jackson have a decent “buddy” chemistry on-screen, that doesn’t get too overbearing, even with the language divide. The layered plot can get a little too drawn-out at times, and the subplot regarding what motivates the bad guys, might get a little too out-there for some audience members. Then again, you might enjoy it if you recall some of the action film fun of the 1980’s.

Episode Review: Star vs The Forces of Evil (Season 1, Episode 12) – Interdimensional Field Trip / Marco Grows A Beard

So, everyone present and accounted for?

Oh, good! I thought another month-long hiatus between episodes would have sent some of you running off over the hills.

Though if you read my episode 11 review of Star vs The Forces of Evil, you also were informed that the show’s first season is only comprised of 13 episodes…which makes this the 2nd-to-last one…before the crippling agony of waiting for word on when Season 2 will begin, sets in.

…but enough rainbows and puppies, we got a review to get onto!

 __________

Interdimensional Field Trip

Star is overjoyed to be on a field trip, but the rest of her class loudly complains about being bored, as Ms Skullnick tells that life isn’t always about fun. Always eager to make sure everyone is having a good time, Star volunteers to take over the field trip duties.

Star then takes the class to the Dimension of Wonders and Amazements, and gives one rule to follow: there are no rules!

While Star soon finds that maybe her one rule is a little too freeing, Skullnick manages to find out a little bit more about her recently-transformed troll-self…and that maybe things aren’t as bad as she first thought.

To me, this episode has the kind of character development/display that I had hoped to see in the episode 2 segment, Match Maker. It doesn’t open all the doors, but we get to see what I’ve hoped for for some time: more interaction between Star, Marco, and their classmates. As well, more names are given regarding some of the minor characters, and a few new faces are added into the mix as well.

Of course, the ‘no rules’ credo pretty quickly turns most of the characters into brainless nincompoops. It’s a little like Marco’s parents in Diaz Family Vacation, but Star’s situation almost seems more akin to trying to keep a group of pre-schoolers in line.

Notable about the episode, is that it actually gives a little more time and character growth for Ms Skullnick, as well as fan-favorite background character, Janna. I must say their little areas of the story were some of the highlights, with Janna’s moments being some of the funniest in the segment.

We also get a tiny little bit of character interaction between Marco, and Jackie Lynn Thomas. It’s not a lot, but it feels like another step beyond the one Marco took in episode 9’s segment, Freeze Day.

Of course, this episode’s structure you’ve probably seen in other series’ shows. I recall the same ‘no rules’ plotlines from cartoons like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears.

However, what’s notable about Field Trip, and what kept it from getting a lower grade in my book, is that there are some items at the beginning that it sets up, and then pays off at the end. These kinds of shows can be a little more fun when you analyze their structure afterwards. My favorite film is Back to the Future, and its storyline also sets up payoffs as its story progresses.

The segment, though not as solid as I would have liked, gives a little more character growth for Star, as well as gives us a chance to see some more of the side-characters given a chance to come to the forefront.

Final segment grade: B

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “They're not lost...we just don't know where they are.”

Best Star Butterfly line from segment: “They’re not lost…we just don’t know where they are.”

__________

Marco Grows A Beard

Marco Grows A Beard

Though Marco is concerned that Star is using her magic a little too often, he also is a little peeved that Jackie Lynn Thomas notices that a classmate named Blake, has grown a noticeable beard.

Star offers to help Marco with his own facial hair growth, but he tells her that he doesn’t want her (magical) help. Of course, it doesn’t take Star long to sneakily perform some magic, causing Marco to grow a beard that soon overtakes the Diaz’s house! As well, Star ends up losing her wand amid the sea of hair.

Star then begins a journey to get back her wand and rescue Marco…but doesn’t realize that Ludo, his minions, and Toffee, are nearby, and also attempting to get the wand as well.

This episode almost harkens back to the real-world comparisons of episode 4’s segment, Quest Buy. However, instead of freaking out about a wand’s charger, there’s that concept of trying to rely less on something as a crutch. As someone who constantly has his iPhone in hand for a very large portion of the day, I could relate to Star’s dependency problems.

Her journey to get back her wand and save Marco, is a little odd at times, but it never quite reaches the levels of ‘whuh’ like The Banagic Incident in episode 11 did. Though in one of the lower moments of Star’s journey, I think the segment brought about one of the cutest bits we’ve seen in awhile.

Marco is given little to do in this episode, other than largely be the focus of Star’s rescue. Though at least he feels moreso like he serves a purpose to the story, though a minor one.

In recent episodes, Ludo and Toffee’s interactions have become more intriguing to me and several others. Though many of us had grown a little non-plussed by Ludo’s ‘smash-and-grab’ tactics, Toffee’s ‘chess game’ attitude has been the one thing that has made the last couple of episodes a little more tolerable when Ludo and his gang appear. Toffee made a strategic move in the segment Mewnipendence Day, and in this segment, he makes a really big move that will surely influence the next episode.

Final segment grade: B

Best Star Butterfly line from segment (as the voice of Mr Hedgeclippers): “Yeah! You don't need no stinkin' wand! Ah wanna cut MAAAHHHHRRRR!!

Best Star Butterfly line from segment (as the voice of Mr Hedgeclippers): “Yeah! You don’t need no stinkin’ wand! Ah wanna cut MAAAHHHHRRRR!!”

__________

Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Janna): “Let's go to the morgue!”

Best honorable mention line from episode (said by Janna): “Let’s go to the morgue!”

Though this week’s episode was ok, I will admit it gave us some pretty decent segments.

Interdimensional Field Trip took us on a journey that showcased a number of Echo Creek Academy’s student body, while also giving a little more development to Star Butterfly, as well as Ms Skullnick.

Marco Grows a Beard had a ‘magic-gone-wrong’ storyline that was a little similar to the segment Monster Arm, but ended up sidelining Marco, in favor of teaching Star about depending moreso on herself than her wand. As well, though the use of Ludo and his minions is a little blase, the overall payoff for their involvement in the episode, helps elevate it over some of the bumpier portions, and makes us eager to see what will happen to them in the next episode.

*And so, another episode review has come to a close. Next week, I hope you’ll join me as I review the Season 1 Finale “Storm The Castle,” which will be the same length as the “St Olga’s Reform School” episode: over 20+ minutes long! There’s been a lot of stuff happening behind-the-scenes in the last 5 episodes, and I’m sure it’ll pay off in some ways…and most likely, give us some new questions to sift through, during our waiting for Season 2. Now, let’s go to the morgue!*

Audio Commentary Commentation: Untitled (aka “Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut”)

While some films have made me well-aware of their presence months or even years beforehand, every-so-often, there come a few that end up just popping up, and surprising me.

That was the case in September of 2000, as I prepared to leave my hometown of Waterloo, IA, and embark on a quest to pursue animation in the big city. My life had largely been one of animation and film fascination since a young age, and it probably made the most sense that I had found refuge and solace in my hometown’s movie theater, where I had been employed since May of 1999.

A few days before I was scheduled to leave on the next big journey of my life, we ran a print to make sure it was put together properly, for a new film by director Cameron Crowe, called Almost Famous.

The film was a pseudo-documentary of Cameron’s own life growing up. In the film, young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has aspirations to become a Rock journalist. He gets the opportunity when Rolling Stone magazine calls, asking if he’d like to cover a band for a magazine article. Having just met up-and-coming band Stillwater at the local Sports Arena a few days before, William requests to cover them, and he’s soon on his way.

What I saw on the screen, quickly seemed to speak to me. William Miller’s journey out into the big world to be a Rock Journalist, I could almost see slightly mirroring my own journey to escape and find something that fascinated me, and along the way, make me learn a few things or two regarding life.

The film rose and fell quickly at the box-office (even international grosses couldn’t help it recoup its $50 million budget), but it quickly became an awards-season contender. Crowe was hailed in many capacities for the film’s original screenplay writing, which took home plenty of screenplay awards in a number of different awards ceremonies, and film critics circles.

The film would be released on VHS and DVD a few months after the Academy Awards, but I held out, as word came that Cameron was priming what he called, Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut.

The original “Bootleg Cut,” released in Winter of 2001, with a 6-song CD featuring the music of “Stillwater.”

The Bootleg Cut added an extra 35 minutes to the theatrical release, and the DVD set had plenty of extras regarding Crowe’s career as a journalist. It even included a packed-in CD containing the original music that was recorded for the film’s made-up band, Stillwater (which featured actors Billy Crudup, and Jason Lee).

What was most intriguing to me, was that the film also contained an audio commentary track (and it even had its own subtitles!). But this isn’t just Crowe flying solo. He also brings along some friends. They include Scott Martin (from Vinyl Films), Andy Fischer (from Vinyl Films) Ivan Corona (a family friend), Mark Atkinson (from Dreamworks), and, Cameron’s mother, Alice Crowe, who is portrayed in the role of Elaine Miller in the film, as played by Frances McDormand.

At the start of the commentary, Crowe tells how he could be ‘dark and mysterious’ about the film and reveal nothing, or be ‘blatantly open’ and reveal plenty about the film. Luckily, Cameron chooses to play nice, and the 2 1/2 hours fly by, with him and his cohorts sharing memories about his past, the film’s production, and making note of some information that proves to be quite entertaining.

Sifting through the information, I thought I’d share 5 of those moments that stand out, and list them below. I find them sort of like an appetizer of what the full commentary track contains.

__________

Setting the Tone of the Film

During the process of deciding how to make Almost Famous, Crowe often found himself trying to figure out how best to focus on the story, without having it derail too far into the standard troupes that almost every other rock-and-roll-based film seemed to go towards.

In an opening scene taking place in 1969, a young William Miller (played by Michael Angarano) finds his sister has given him her collection of records. Crowe tells how many of the records were time-accurate, but he did throw in some that set a particular ‘mood’ for the scene, and the film in general:

Cameron Crowe: Cindy (my sister) actually did do this, left me her records. And it was-the only one that is actually not ‘time-accurate,’ and it’s one of the few little obvious, purposeful mistakes was (Joni Mitchell’s album) Blue.

Blue came out a couple years later, but I love the album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, because it’s personal, and it’s shamelessly personal, and I-it probably aches for her, and I think she’s said she doesn’t listen to it that much. And I thought, that’s a standard to hit for the movie, you know? This movie’s gotta ache, and if you pull punches in a coy or precious way, why do it?

So it was kind of hard day-to-day to just, be ‘a cop’ on yourself. And it’s funny how the movie turns out to still be, kind of a-you know, “worshipful” in the right way. Because I think to be a fan is an important thing, it’s good to protect that, and the movie, more than anything else to me, feels like a fan’s love-letter.

That is definitely the case with both cuts of the film. We get to see a lot of the highs and lows of Crowe’s life, emulated through William Miller.

From his being looked down upon for being younger than his classmates, to caring for “band-aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), but seeing that she doesn’t see him as anything more than a friend, whose along for the ride.

This also carries over into the emotions that William’s Mom goes through. Her characterization captures the concern she has for her son’s emotional well-being, as well as her fears that something might happen to him out among the crazy world of Rock Stars.

__________

Mick Jagger will turn Mom around

A major influence on Cameron’s life has been his Mom, Alice Crowe. A former teacher, Alice’s methods may have seemed a little odd to many. While most would sugar-coat some things, Alice Crowe would often give you the straight story…which caused her to freak out quite a few people.

One area of Cameron’s career that took his Mom awhile to warm up to, was Rock-and-Roll. The original career goal for Cameron, was that he would eventually become a lawyer, and that Rock Journalism would be moreso a hobby (since you couldn’t really live well as a freelance Rock writer), but those plans fell through (as can be seen by his current career as a film director). However, there were some points where Alice mellowed on her stance, and one of those moments was mentioned:

Cameron Crowe: I just want-for anybody listening-we are into the achingly-personal aspect of our audio tour-

Alice Crowe: *laughs*

Cameron Crowe-we had a press party after the book Conversations with Wilder came out, and Mick Jagger was invited, and he showed up! And my mom actually spent more time talking to Mick Jagger, than ME that night. 

Alice Crowe: *laughs*

Cameron Crowe: What was that like?

Alice Crowe: Well, he’s amazing because, I’ve seen his photographs, and I saw him in person, and he looked so young. Actually, he’s quite good-looking in person.

Cameron Crowe: Ok. You see how it happens?

Alice Crowe: Yeah.

Cameron Crowe: Rock is evil, until you meet Mick Jagger!

The book Conversations With Wilder (which Cameron wrote), came out in 1999, so the Mom-meets-Mick moment happened before the film came out.

Though he wasn’t in Almost Famous, Mick’s name did come up in one scene. As manager Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) pitches his ideas to help the band make more money, he tells how they have only a finite amount of time to do so. One line he uses, is telling them that if they think Mick Jagger will still be playing in his 50’s, they are “sadly mistaken.”

Crowe said (at the time), he wasn’t sure how Mick took that line, but it was moreso a line that smacked of the times. Because at that time in 1973, who would have expected some of the Rock Stars of that time to still be touring and making money, over 2-3 decades later?

__________

What’s in a Name?

Believe it or not, the film’s name did not come easily, and there was a constant struggle to figure out just what to call it. During a scene where Russell Hammond and William Miller go to a house in Nebraska, Cameron relays how during the shoot there, there was a little contest to try and name the film:

Cameron Crowe: It was a derby. The fans (in the scene), the extras, were trying to come up with titles for us, the crew was trying to come up with titles. We had a big box that everybody would put ‘suggested titles’ in it.

Nothing was ever as good to me as Untitled, for the longest time, although I’m now used to Almost Famous. But I wanted-the movie wanted to be called Untitled, like, the fourth (Led) Zeppelin album, or a painting, that was just shaking off all notions of a title.

But, I do remember my favorite of all the submitted titles: Saving Williams’ Privates.

__________

Memories of Events Gone By

Watching Untitled, there are a number of moments that seem to be perfect freeze-frames, that could capture the essence of the film or its time period. I sifted through quite a few that Cameron calls out in the commentary, but one that really stood out, followed a concert where Stillwater performed in Cleveland, Ohio.

As the band is talked into hiring a new manager named Dennis Hope (played by Jimmy Fallon) in the back rooms, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), dances and twirls around the empty auditorium’s floor (as Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, plays over the scene). Cameron has cited this scene as his favorite in the film, and takes the time to elaborate on his feelings towards it:

Cameron Crowe: The one regret I have about the theatrical version (of the film), there’s only one, is that this scene didn’t go on longer. So we let it play (in the Bootleg Cut), as long as-well actually, I could probably still take it, for about an hour or so.

But I just love this moment, because it’s so much, what the movie is about-

Alice Crowe: Yes.

Cameron Crowe: -the spirits that remain after something magical’s happened, and how-

Alice Crowe: Yes.

Cameron Crowe: -you can go back to a place where something amazing occurred, and the feeling’s still in the air. And she, of all the characters in the movie, understood…understood music, best.

Much was made of Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who was based on several girls Crowe met over the course of his time interviewing bands. Though largely a composite of several different ones, Hudson’s Penny Lane often seemed an ethereal spirit of music. She was that wistful pixie that seemed to inspire, but was someone who could never really be tamed in her emotions or thoughts.

I’m all about atmosphere, and this scene has also been a favorite of mine. I have often found myself going to some places, and almost doing what Cameron mentions, about that lingering feeling of something you experienced, but has been covered over by the years gone by.

As well, the use of Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, has caused me to use that song in some quieter moments of contemplation, and remembrance.

__________

Of Lester Bangs, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Loneliness

One of Crowe’s ‘mentors’ in the world of Rock Journalism, was Lester Bangs. Bangs was a freelance writer who wrote for such publications as Rolling Stone, and Creem magazine.

In the film, he is portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in what some have often felt is one of his best, lesser-known performances.

During one of the final scenes, William is struggling on how to finish his piece on the band Stillwater. With the clock ticking down before he has to submit it to Rolling Stone, he calls Lester in Michigan, to figure out just what he should do.

The scene actually became better, given what Hoffman suggested to Crowe:

Cameron Crowe: This scene is funny. This scene changed a lot. Originally, it was a scene where Lester was storming through the apartment, just, shouting advice to this guy like a warrior-king. And, through rehearsals and discussions with Phil Hoffman, who is a brilliant actor, and really did only have a few bursts of time to do this part…through conversations and rehearsals, we decided to make this scene about the two (Lester and William).

Alice Crowe: Yeah.

Cameron Crowe: The only two guys in the world still up, and they’re talking with each other, and this guy is-and this was Phil Hoffman’s note: “Lester, was lonely.”

Alice Crowe: Yes.

Cameron Crowe: And it’s funny that he channeled Lester so carefully. It’s funny that he said that, and kind of amazing, because I knew Lester, but I had forgotten the loneliness. And I had remembered him larger-than-life, maybe without some of that loneliness, but it was Phil Hoffman that said, “I want to play that loneliness.”

Because he’d studied Lester, and that’s how we came across this scene, which I’m, really proud of.

Cameron’s Mother also goes on to say that the scene is very moving, and several of the other commentators mention how it feels that Hoffman is long overdue for an Oscar win. 5 years after Almost Famous, Hoffman would win for his portrayal of author Truman Capote.

__________

Like almost every Commentation article I write, there’s plenty of material I have to keep myself from expounding on, lest I bore you, the reader, with about 4,000 words.

The commentary was also ported over to the Blu-Ray release that came out a few years ago. However, it doesn’t contain the readable subtitles.

It’s a fun listen, because Crowe himself is just as much a fan of films as he is of music. He makes references to such films as To Kill a Mockingbird, The 400 Blows, and The Apartment. He also cites inspiration from the likes of Billy Wilder, and Francois Truffaut.

I will end by saying that in the 15 years since I’ve seen the film, I’ve found that being a fan of Almost Famous/Untitled, is a bit of an acquired taste. Of the films I love, I think a good 2% of people in my life have ever been able to sit through it, and enjoy it on the same level as me.

Then again, there is something fascinating about its time-capsule quality. Seeing the San Diego that my Mom and some of her siblings grew up in in the late 60’s/early 70’s, let alone the feel of the time period that I had just missed out on when I was born in 1980, as the fashions and styles of that world began to morph into a new realm of Rock-and-Roll.

Movie Musings: Remembering ‘Herbie – Fully Loaded,’ 10 years later

Over the years, it’s often a given that many studios will try to revive certain characters or concepts. For example, we’ve seen it with Walt Disney Studios in many capacities. Of the live-action concepts made after Walt Disney’s passing, the one that has often popped up over the last couple decades, has been “The Love Bug” himself: Herbie.

Quad-poster from 1968 debut of “The Love Bug”

The weirdly-alive little VW Bug would often find himself bringing people together, while often involved in some form of racing, and caught in the crosshairs of a not-to-happy human being, who often wanted him disassembled.

Since his debut in 1968, Herbie has made an appearance almost every decade. In 1997, even Bruce Campbell gained ownership of Herbie, in a made-for-TV movie. That special attempted to explain Herbie’s origins, and also created an anti-Herbie, in the form of Horace, The Hate Bug (think Herbie, crossed with the antagonistic vehicle from 1977’s The Car).

After that special, it seemed that Herbie’s time had come and gone…but as the Walt Disney Studios began to comb through its live-action archives for characters and storylines to bring into the 21st century, Herbie’s number came up.

Modified and revved up for new audiences, the Love Bug would find himself in a film that offered street racing, NASCAR, and demolition derby thrills. Along for the ride, were the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Matt Dillon, Justin Long, Breckin Meyer, and Michael Keaton.

__________

After many years in the limelight, it seems Herbie’s ride may finally have come to an end.

However, he gets a second lease on life when he is chosen by Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan), the daughter of racing legend, Ray Peyton (Michael Keaton).

Herbie, Kevin (Justin Long), and Maggie (Lindsay Lohan) partake in the nostalgic past time, of drive-in movies

Maggie is at first unsure of the choice she’s made, but Herbie ends up impressing her and her friend Kevin (Justin Long), when he ends up beating famed NASCAR driver, Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon), in an impromptu street-race.

Maggie soon starts to secretly race Herbie under the secret identity of Max, while Trip finds himself obsessed with finding out who Max is, and wanting to get payback on the little Bug.

__________

From the very first rumblings of the film’s production announcement, I recall that noone seemed to have any major interest in a racing film starring Herbie. Even the theaters I was in that had the film’s previews brought little reaction.

Unlike most films that often seek to totally re-invent a past concept, the film’s director, Angela Robinson, manages to somehow shoot right for that sweet spot, giving us something that feels nostalgic, but has a new spin. Oftentimes, scenes are shot with the sun-drenched feel of a beach film, and the soundtrack includes some songs that tap into the nostalgic past.

There was also a push by Robinson, to use physical effects moreso than computer-generated ones, as much as possible. Over 35 different Herbies were utilized over the course of the film, with just a few dozen scenes utilizing a computer-generated Bug, where the impossible couldn’t be achieved.

Interior of one of the 35 Herbie prop cars used in the film.

Notable among the physical effects, is a rail-slide ‘gag,’ in which Herbie displays some skateboarding skills, and slides along a guard-rail, before hopping off at the end, to beat Trip Murphy’s car.

A DVD release of Herbie’s second adventure…with artwork that gives him human eyes.

The scene only lasts 8 seconds, but the production utilized 4 vehicles to achieve the scene. When one thinks how they could have just turned it over to an effects studio to make a CG bug, one has to realize how much care went into making you ‘believe’ the effect.

This rendition of Herbie also adds personality to his lights and bumper. Past film marketing (like the image on the left) would often add playful eyes or expressions to their promotional images, but this was the first film to add effects to these specific areas within a film.

Fully Loaded also happens to be the first Herbie film with a female lead. Since her lead debut in 1998’s Parent Trap remake, Lohan was often involved in a number of Disney Studio productions, up through 2005 (with Herbie being her last). Here, she manages to imbue Maggie Peyton as wanting to take a more serious direction in her life, but is still under the allure of racing that has been a part of her family’s heritage.

Lindsay Lohan, as Maggie Peyton

I will admit that the film didn’t fully sell me on the ‘racing’s in my blood’ vibe of her character, but makes up for it in making me moreso believe the little scenes and nuances she gives to the character, which helps make her not a one-dimensional lead. I like to think this could also be the strength of the director, as Robinson has often tackled projects that deal with female leads (she directed the independent film D.E.B.S., and has written for shows like True Blood, and The L Word).

One of the concepts of the early Herbie films, was that the bad guy was often someone whose ego would get in the way, and eventually be their downfall (a little like Indiana Jones’ bad guys). In this case, Fully Loaded revives that concept with Trip Murphy, who after being beaten in a street race by Herbie (and Maggie), just can’t get over this blow to his ego.

Matt Dillon, as NASCAR driver, Trip Murphy

For the most part, Dillon plays Trip as a pretty ‘straight-arrow’ regarding his character. He is driven by ego, but he never feels as over-the-top as past Herbie bad guys…though not to say he doesn’t have a maniacal chuckle in a few places.

Of the additional supporting cast, it is Justin Long who gets the most screen-time as Maggie’s friend/love-interest, Kevin. Long’s character also functions as both the won-over skeptic regarding Herbie, as well as the ‘mechanic’ side of the team. His character almost harkens back to Buddy Hackett’s character from the Love Bug film, but unlike Hackett’s character, Long’s is not so easily able to accept Herbie’s ‘magic’ right away.

Of course, not everything is sunshine and lollipops in the film. During one scene, Herbie is stripped down, and thrown into a demolition derby. The film plays the scene as one of the more dramatic moments, with Herbie being beaten up and knocked about, as the crowd seems to roar in approval.

Herbie’s most dramatic moment.

On the DVD’s audio commentary, Robinson remarked that her inspiration for the scene, was taken from the 1979 adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Robinson was emotionally taken in the scene in the film where Aslan sacrifices himself to the White Witch, and she drew inspiration from that scene, to try and make the audience care about what was happening to Herbie during this scene.

__________

Herbie: Fully Loaded is not the best of the live-action Disney features released in the mid-2000’s, but I find it a fun little romp to watch every once-in-awhile. At least it holds up as a less-embarrassing reboot of an older property than say, Inspector Gadget.

Overall, the film performed slightly-above-average in its US release, making just a little more than its $50 million budget.

Even so, Angela Robinson’s direction was, to me, successful in making the film feel like a throwback to those old-fashioned films of the 1960’s, while trying to add a little something new to the mix.

The film often just tries to have fun, and that can be seen in some scenes. On the audio commentary, Robinson jokes how she felt that Cheetos being Trip Murphy’s NASCAR sponsor was a fun in-joke. The snack’s slogan at the time was “dangerously cheesy,” which seemed to be a perfect subtext for Trip himself.

The film was one of Lohan’s last for the Walt Disney Studios, and followed her most notable role, in 2004’s Mean Girls. I often think of the film as her final performance, before the media just pounced on her over a number of life and career decisions in the months and years that followed.

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may know that I am also one of those guys who has always had a penchant for cars in films. That explains why I was on board for such car-related (yet publicly-derided) films like Cars, and Speed Racer. I guess having a penchant for wheeled vehicles ups my oddball factor, as many in the public these days, don’t see cars as being as big a deal as they were 30-50 years ago.

As it stands now, there’s been no further attempts to revive Herbie’s racing career, and the film has been one of several that have risen and fallen, to end up in the discount bins, and used DVD stores.

Even so, the DVD release is a pretty informative one. The making-of specials offer rare insight into the film, and even the audio commentary with Angela Robinson is a fun listen.

One fun thing, was that she decided to actually keep in some ‘film flubs,’ because even in the older Herbie films, you’d ‘see the strings’ at times. One little gag included the one below, in which for a split second, you can see a person’s hand flinging a hubcap, which is meant to actually be Herbie throwing it off his wheel.

“Eh, we’ll fix it in editing.”

Though the film did have a soundtrack release, I was disappointed that it didn’t have any of the beach-music, syntho-score pieces done by Mark Mothersbaugh (the entire soundtrack was largely just made up of pop music, and a single by Lohan). Mark’s scores for film have often been dramatic at times, but do have some fun flourishes, such as in The LEGO Movie, and The Life Aquatic. Notable in this film, is in the final race scene, where Mark just lays on some fun energetic music, that even got me excited as the race began to wrap up.

The charm of the film definitely seems to be reveling in its ridiculousness, but also attempting to attach some heart to the piece. And in that aspect, Herbie Fully Loaded tends to rise above a lot of the more mediocre G-rated fare out there, provided you’re able to give in, sit back, and enjoy the ride.