Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (L. Lynch, 2006)

The remarkable thing about Tenacious D is that, despite obviously being a joke band, they are actually capable on occasion of achieving a bizarre death-folk nirvana. It's no wonder that the fictional versions of Jack Black and Kyle Gass spend so much time trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Most of the time, the two sound like a pair of goofs messing around after a night of mind-altering substances. But every once in a while - honest to goodness - the music actually soars and the two create a distinctive sound that is no less awesome for its copious references to medieval mythology and explicit sex.

Perhaps Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny is all the more disappointing because it gives us glimpses of the glorious film that could have been. In the opening sequence, quite obviously inspired by The Who's Tommy, a young Jack Black rocks the family dinner, upsets his Christian father and pledges his loyalty to Ronnie James Dio. The tone, the energy, the humor, the music - everything is pitch perfect. This is what the Tenacious D film needed to be - an overblown rock opera emulating (and topping) the excesses of their idols. Instead, the film soon drops its ambition and slides into a half-baked stoner comedy complete with mandatory cameos by Ben Stiller and Amy Poehler.

The D will probably never have another chance at making a feature film, so it is a shame that they settled for lame kung-fu parody, an uninspired hallucinogenic sequence and a gratuitous car chase. Most of this is transparent filler as we await the unavoidable confrontation with Satan himself. The film once again enters rock opera mode and immediately recaptures our attention. This is the D we need to see. We need nothing short of our minds completely blown. In the film's final scene, we get an ultra lame bong joke, followed by an after-the-credits fart gag. Not good enough. When watching the D, our level of enjoyment directly correlates to their level of mad ambition.


Monday, August 20, 2007

The NeverEnding Story (Petersen, 1984)

Although it contains many familiar plot elements, there is probably not another film that feels quite the same as The NeverEnding Story. There is a brave hero who has been sent on a great quest, a trusty steed, a journey filled with all manner of odd creatures who provide clues, a giant, a wolf, a dragon and a child monarch. However, it is not merely the plot that involves the viewer - although it certainly has its share of satisfying developments. Rather, it is the delightful way in which we are lured into the story - not just of a young hunter tasked with the responsibility of finding a cure for the Childlike Empress, but also of an ordinary boy who is discovering the extraordinary power of his own imagination.

You may remember the fantasy scenes more vividly from your childhood than you do the ‘reality’ scenes; however, the way the character of Bastian, the reader, is established is vital to the film’s success and as worthy of praise as anything else we see. First there is the simple and not overly emotional talk from Dad, in which we learn indirectly that Bastian’s Mom is no longer around. Bastian’s father is not painted as a caricature, nor is his advice all that unreasonable. He is loving, although he may not entirely grasp his son’s needs. Then, there is Bastian’s encounter with the bullies in which he is chased down an alleyway and forced to escape into a garbage dumpster. Here we see the daily reality that Bastian’s father is asking him to face. The bullies do not inflict physical pain upon Bastian. It is enough for us to experience his indignity.

Eluding the bullies’ second pursuit, Bastian ducks into an old bookstore run by a crotchety man who takes Bastian for the sort of kid who would rather spend his time at the video arcade. Bastian defends himself as a reader of worthwhile literature. Maybe so, but the shop owner assures him that all that he has experienced is kid-stuff compared to The Neverending Story. Luring Bastian in with quiet intensity, he eventually induces Bastian to ‘borrow’ the book while simultaneously piquing the viewer’s curiosity as well.

Skipping class and hiding himself away in an unused room at his school, Bastian’s decision to read and plunge himself into Fantasia, the setting for The Neverending Story, is positioned as an act of rebellion. This mysterious book and the wonders it must contain are too thrilling to be diluted. The math test will have to wait. His father will have to wait. Bastian isolates himself and plunges into a different world. The geography of Fantasia, with its swirling clouds, murky swamps, shimmering seas and gaping canyons is pleasantly disorienting. We are never quite sure how the various topographies interconnect. It is difficult to grasp how far Atreyu, the hunter, has traveled. When the wolf dispatched to end Atreyu’s mission pursues him, we are not sure how close or far away he is. Making matters worse is the ever-looming presence of The Nothing, a seemingly unstoppable force that rips up everything in its path. This fictional universe is elusive, intangible, ever-shifting and, most importantly, exhilarating.

As events unfold, it becomes clear that Bastian’s role as reader is more vital than he could possibly have imagined. Once Atreyu finally meets the ailing Childlike Empress (played by Tami Stronach, who is breathtaking in the only screen performance of her career), he arrives believing that his quest has been a failure. What follows is a deeply satisfying coup de theater that not only elevates the role of Bastian, the reader, but by logical extension, the viewer as well.

Michael Ende, the man who wrote the work upon which Wolfgang Petersen’s film is based, was deeply dissatisfied with the adaptation, going so far as to sue to have the name changed. It’s a shame - because one of the strongest feelings the film inspires in the viewer is the desire to lock oneself away with Mr. Ende’s book.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Death of a President (Range, 2006)

Much to my surprise, Gabriel Range’s faux-documentary, Death of a President, which considers what might happen in the wake of a successful assassination attempt on George W. Bush, is not the kind of wild-eyed, irresponsible shock-piece that I had anticipated. On the contrary, it is thoroughly engrossing speculation that concisely sums up the major tensions brewing in the United States at this time and suggests that the country, with Bush serving as a lightning rod, is not only a target of intense external aggression, but also is home to an alarming amount of internal discontent and anger. The filmmakers wisely steer clear of the sort of Bush ridicule that has become de rigeur over the past six years. Yet, at the same time, they create an accurate picture of the man, folksy bravado and ideological stubbornness intact.

Fittingly, the investigation that follows, headed up by President Cheney – I’ll give you a moment to shudder – falls into the same kind of methodological errors that have led to disaster in Iraq, namely letting a conclusion precede evidence rather than evidence leading to a conclusion. What is most admirable about the film is the way that it proceeds without concern for who will take offense. Political advisors, dissidents and talking heads alike are drawn with flaws exposed, but very little registers as being unfair or false. It’s quite possible that we are too close to the subject of Range’s film for it to receive wide appreciation. I suspect that it will be the sort of film that will gain more support with time. It seems to me that the film has been hastily dismissed for reasons that will not be important to those who will watch it in the future. Beyond the startling premise, this is a film that effectively captures the feeling of the age, wrapping post-9/11 paranoia, governmental distrust and Katrina outrage into one potent package.