Saturday, August 3, 2013

Dazed and Confused (1993)

In the moments that immediately followed my first viewing of George Lucas' pre-Star Wars masterpiece American Graffiti (1973), I distinctly remember thinking that it might just be my new favorite movie. Almost four years and several rewatches later, I can confidently state that at this point in my life American Graffiti is my favorite film of all time.  Although well-respected by both film historians and critics, it's not the greatest movie ever made nor is it one that everyone will appreciate, but for me this film has it all.  Set in 1962 Bakersfield, American Graffiti tells the story of a group of recent high school graduates and their struggle to figure out what the next chapter in each of their lives will be.  For some of them the decision revolves around college, but for others the stark reality of working in the same small town in which they grew up seems almost predetermined.  Life is changing, but decisions can wait until morning when the infinite possibility of one summer night lies on the city streets before them.

American Grafitti has a strongly established setting (a specific year in a specific US city, taking into consideration contemporary music, cars, trends, etc.), a diverse set of characters with passions, problems, and quirks, and a simple plot/theme of enjoying the time at hand which allows the events of the film to take place in one 24 hour period of time.  Naturally when I kept hearing about how Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) accomplished these same feats nearly as well, I was excited to check out this more recent film.  I wasn't expecting it to dethrone my favorite movie (which it didn't), but I figured I'd at least enjoy it (which I did).

Dazed and Confused begins on the last day of school in 1976 Austin, Texas and follows a group of adolescents who have just been set free for the summer.  These teens range in age from incoming freshman to newly crowned seniors.  Rather than focus on life after high school, the worldview of Dazed and Confused is more narrow in scope, and in my opinion the initiation of last year's 8th graders is one of the more interesting aspects of the film.  While this shift in focus admittedly lessens what little plot there is (no matter what happens, they're all gonna be back at school in a couple months), it makes the theme resonate all the more clearly: wherever you are in life, live it up to the fullest.

Similarly to how American Graffiti marked the debut of several stars (including Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, and Cindy Williams), Dazed and Confused introduced an even larger batch of Hollywood names with the likes of Milla Jovovich, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, RenĂ©e Zellweger, Anthony Rapp, and Adam Goldberg topping out the list.  Some of their roles are a lot of fun to look back on, particularly Matthew McConaughey (who I usually dislike).  Ben Affleck's character is a real jerk which, if you already hate him, makes it all the better when he gets what he deserves.

The music in the film is killer.  It's all '70s rock with a bit of folk (Bob Dylan's "Hurricane") and two songs by War ("Lowrider" and "Why Can't We Be Friends"), a group whose genre I can never quite put my finger on.  A few of my favorites used include "Sweet Emotion" by Aerosmith and "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath, and the fact that they chose Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold" over "Cat Scratch Fever" I think shows a lot of taste.  Peter Frampton and Alice Cooper are also put to great use.  The soundtrack would be supreme if not for one fatal flaw.

My biggest problem with this movie was that it paid tribute to my favorite '70s movie but not my favorite '70s band.  Despite the fact that its title is taken from a track from Led Zeppelin's 1969 debut album, the film fails not only to include the song "Dazed and Confused" but also to incorporate a single song by the band that played it!  In my mind there was no excuse not to replace a few of the more run-of-the-mill songs by Foghat or Sweet or ZZ Top with at least a couple mainstream Led tracks like "Rock And Roll" or "Whole Lotta Love" let alone write/direct a sequence to go along with some portion of the six and a half minute perfection that is "Dazed and Confused."  When the credits rolled and ended with no Led, I was in disbelief.

I did some research, and it turns out that the director actually intended on using "Rock And Roll" but was unable to secure the proper authorization required to do so:  

'Plant sold his rights to the Led Zeppelin material in the early 1980's, although he still maintains 1/3 creative control, but he doesn't get any royalties from the sales of Led Zeppelin albums, hence his comment when being interviewed by Letterman about Zeppelin being more rewarding for Jimmy these days. Robert has used this control to veto the 20th anniversary single of "Stairway to Heaven" and the use of any Zeppelin material in the film "Dazed and Confused."

Director Richard Linklater went to the extreme length of sending a video tape of him personally pleading to Plant to let him include the song "Rock And Roll" in his movie "Dazed And Confused". The film is about a group of teenagers in the 1970s and what they get up to on the last day of school. The film featured a lot of classic seventies songs such as Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion". Both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones approved the inclusion of the song, but Plant, for reasons best known to himself, refused to allow it to be used. This meant it couldn't be used, as agreement from all three surviving members of Zeppelin was required. There is no Zeppelin content in the film anyway, and Linklater was of the opinion that Plant's "people" rather than him were behind the refusal, actually expressing his doubts that his pleas ever got to Plant himself.'

So no one really knows why authorization for the Dazed and Confused soundtrack was denied by the band.  It's a shame because the film really would have benefited that little bit by filling out its vintage rock playlist, but at the end of the day it's a minor complaint by an outspoken Led Zeppelin fan.

Another factor that doesn't make this film as classic for me is that the characters by and large are degenerates.  They're entertaining, but I just don't identity with them or think I would have been like them had I been in high school in 1976.  With American Graffiti, I really feel like I could have been there in 1962 cruising downtown with Wolfman Jack on the radio, trying to find that blonde in the T-bird.  For me, that's what these movies are all about: capturing a time we never could have experienced otherwise.  When it comes down to it, these are just the trivial reasons why I prefer American Graffiti; Dazed and Confused is great, too, partially in its own way and partially through emulation.  Long live the '70s!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

When Universal Pictures released Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, they successfully created what most film historians consider to be the last of the classic Universal monsters: Gill-man. Whether or not you've seen the original movie, that pale green, fish-faced humanoid also known as the Creature would probably look familiar with a quick image search.  With back to back sequels in the two consecutive years that followed the original's release, the Creature movies not only harked back to the timeless romanticism of the older Universal monster films but also helped update the science fiction genre with dialogue explaining biological research and theories as best as 1950s science could as well as offering social commentary on the increasing issues of pollution and destruction of ecology.  This duality is what allows the films to fit in with the classics that predate it by over 20 years while simultaneously being easy to watch for modern generations.

For a younger film lover getting into the Universal monster movies, one of the biggest challenges is determining the plot continuity between their array of sequels and deciding which ones are actually worth watching.  Having seen Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), this was the exact point I had reached.  I'd seen the first two Frankenstein sequels (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, and Son of Frankenstein, 1939), but none of the other sequels/spinoffs are as talked about as these two, and ignoring the rest would surely result in missing out on some great American cinema. Well, I recently rewatched Creature from the Black Lagoon and subsequently viewed Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) for the first time, and I can say that this well-contained trilogy is worth seeing in its entirety.  I'd like to focus on Revenge of the Creature because personally I liked it more than the last sequel and have some more noteworthy points in its defense.  Like most other Universal monster movies, the Creature movies no longer fit in what's commonly known as the horror genre, but all three can be considered science-fiction films with elements of romance.

For Revenge of the Creature, Jack Arnold returned as director and Ricou Browning reprised his role as Gill-man in the underwater scenes (land scenes featuring the Creature would be covered by three different actors in each of the movies).  While the overall formula of the first sequel is near identical to the original, what really keeps Revenge of the Creature fresh and different from its predecessor is its setting.  While the first movie takes place in the Black Lagoon in the Amazon, Gill-man's home turf, the sequel is set at an oceanarium in Florida where the Creature is studied by scientists after his capture in the film's opening sequence.  This turning of the tables offers a new cast of marine biologists and animal psychologists the opportunity to study the Creature in captivity.  Needless to say, his escape is imminent.  Actor John Agar is the leading man and Lori Nelson his lovely counterpart, and while she ultimately becomes the damsel in distress she is one of the scientists studying the Creature and an intelligent one at that.  Whether or not this qualifies as progressive for the 1950s is up to opinion, but it's a step up from the original if that womanizing factor tends to bother you in movies.  The scientific discussion  between characters in Revenge of the Creature is more prominent than in Creature from the Black Lagoon.  While this feature adds to overall production value of the film, it's also fun to observe what scientific explanations were available in the mid '50s that are still sound today and have a bit of a laugh at the couple lines that don't quite sound right if you've studied biology or psychology lately.  The action and swimming sequences are on par with the original but with a bit more variety, and although they messed up his eyes on the out of water costume (just wait for the third), the gill flapping effects on Gill-man's head are even better than in the first movie.

The Creature Walks Among Us takes a radically different direction with the series but is interesting to say the least.  New ethical issues are delved into as scientists operate on Gill-man in order to keep him alive, replacing his gills with lungs.  In this regard, it reminds me a lot of George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985); I don't like either as much as the first two films in their respective series, but they raise some interesting moral concerns while generally retaining what made the previous films great.  An interesting thing to note about The Creature from the Black Lagoon series is that the first two films were shot and released in 3-D and all three films were made in black and white.  If you're watching Revenge of the Creature, keep your eyes peeled for an uncredited cameo as a lab assistant by Clint Eastwood.  This brief role was his first onscreen appearance!