Back to School #53: Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 (dir by Tim McCanlies)


dancer-texas-pop-81-movie-poster-1998-1020196368

Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 is a 1998 film about a small town in West Texas that only has a population of 81 citizens.  Just from my own experience of telling people about how much I happen to like this movie, I get the feeling that only 81 people may have actually seen it.  But no matter!  Regardless of how many people have actually seen it, Dancer, Texas is one of my favorite films about my home state.

Dancer starts out with a scene that is so quintessentially Texan that it might as well appear next to Texas in the dictionary.  Four teenagers — all of whom are scheduled to soon graduate from high school — sit out in the middle of the highway.  The road seems to stretch on forever.  The land around them is empty.  If you’ve ever been to West Texas, you know what type of land I’m talking about.  It’s the type of land where you feel like you can see forever.  In the far distance, we see a pair of headlights.

“Car’s comin'” one of them drawls, knowing that they’ve got at least another 15 minutes before that car ever gets anywhere near the tiny town of Dancer, Texas.

These four teenage boys make up 80% of the graduating class of Dancer’s high school and all four of them are planning on leaving town and heading for Los Angeles.  Keller (Breckin Meyer) is their leader, the big dreamer who can’t wait to get out of the state.  Terrell Lee (Peter Facinelli) is the son of the only rich man in town and he’s being pressured by his mother to stay in Dancer and to learn the oil business.  John (Eddie Mills) is the simplest of the four and also the most reluctant about leaving.  He simply wants to be a farmer and he can’t understand why his taciturn father refuses to say anything to keep him from leaving town.  And finally, there’s Squirrel (Ethan Embry), who is the weird one.  Every group needs a weird one and Squirrel is weird even by the usual standards of small town oddness.

Not much happens in Dancer, Texas.  That goes for both the film and the town.  Over the course of two days, all four of the boys are forced to decide whether they really want to leave or if they actually want to stay.  Adding an extra poignancy to their decision is the fact that there literally is no chance that life in Dancer is ever going to change.  Dancer is as it has always been and always will be.  Deciding to stay means staying forever.  And, as the film shows, that’s okay for some people and terrible for others.

I really like Dancer, Texas.  Yes, it does move at its own deliberate pace and yes, a few scenes do tend to get a bit too obvious in their sentimentality (just to name two of the complaints that I saw from some commenters over at the imdb).  Meyer, Facinelli, and Mills all give such wonderfully natural performances that it makes you all the more aware that Embry seems a bit out-of-place.  But, ultimately, none of that matters.  Dancer, Texas is one of the most honest and sincere films that I’ve ever seen and it’s a film that does my home state proud.

Lisa’s Rating: 8 out of 10

211

Back to School #52: The Faculty (dir by Robert Rodriguez)


3494-b-the-faculty

Have you ever wanted to see Jon Stewart get stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle?

If you answered yes, then 1998’s The Faculty might be the film for you!

The Faculty takes a look at what happens when a new alien species happens to turn up outside of a painfully normal high school in Ohio.  By painfully normal, I mean that Herrington High School is just as messed up as you would expect a suburban high school to be.  The teachers are all underpaid and resentful of their principal (Bebe Neuwrith).  Prof. Furlong (Jon Stewart) is the overqualified science teacher who will perhaps be a little too excited about the chance to examine a new alien species.  Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) is the emotionally shut off coach of the school’s losing football team.  Mrs. Olson (Piper Laurie) is the drama teacher who struggles to promote creativity in a school that’s more interested in blind conformity.  Miss Burke (Famke Janssen) is the teacher who cares too much.  And, finally, there’s Nurse Harper (Salma Hayek), who looks a lot like Salma Hayek.

And, as typical as the teachers may be, the students are even more so.  We get to know a few and they all neatly fit into the expected stereotypes.  Casey (Elijah Wood) is the nerdy outcast who is regularly picked on by … well, by everyone.  Deliliah (Jordana Brewster) is the status-obsessed head cheerleader who has just broken up with her boyfriend, Stan (Shawn Hatosy), because he quit the football team.  Zeke (Josh Hartnett) is the school rebel, the kid who is repeating his senior year and who sells synthetic drugs out of the trunk of his car.  Stokes (Clea DuVall) is an intentional outcast who pretends to be a lesbian and has a crush on Stan.  And finally, there’s Marybeth (Laura Harris), a new transfer student who speaks with a Southern accent.

These students would seem to have nothing in common but they’re going to have to work together because the entire faculty of Herrington High has been taken over by aliens!  Fortunately, the aliens are vulnerable to Zeke’s drugs, which is something that is learned after Jon Stewart takes a hypodermic to the eye…

When one looks over the top Texas filmmakers (director like Terrence Malick, Richard Linklater, Mike Judge, and David Gorden Green), Robert Rodriguez often comes across as being both the most likable and the least interesting.  Like his frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino, Rodriguez fills his movies with references and homages to other films but, unlike Tarantino, there rarely seems to be much going on behind all of those references.  However, Rodriguez’s referential style works well in The Faculty because, along with acting as an homage to both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Faculty also manages to tap into a universal truth.

Teachers are weird!

Or, at least, they seem weird when you’re a student.  Now that I’m out of high school, I can look back and see that my teachers were actually pretty normal.  They were people who did their jobs and, as much as I like to think that I was everyone’s all-time favorite, I’m sure that there have been other brilliant, asthmatic, redheaded, aspiring ballerinas who have sat in their class.  My teachers spent a lot of time talking about things that I may not have been interested in but that wasn’t because they were obsessed with talking to me about algebra or chemistry or anything like that.  They were just doing their job, just like everyone else does.

But, seriously, when you’re a student, it’s easy to believe that your teachers have been possessed by an alien life form.

Probably the best thing about The Faculty is the fact that the aliens cause the teachers to act in ways that are the exact opposite of their usual personalities.  For most of the teachers, this means that they turn into homicidal lunatics.  But, in the case of Coach Willis, this actually leads to him not only becoming a happy, well-adjusted human being but it also turns him into a good coach.  Suddenly, Willis is getting emotional about the games, his team loves him, and he even gets a win!

Go Coach Willis!

As for the film itself, it’s not bad at all.

Lisa’s rating: 7 out of 10.

A Glorious Fantasy: Finally, a Thief!


Abbreviated boilerplate! Once again I return to this ongoing series, in which I attempt to play through every game in the Final Fantasy franchise that I can get my hands on, from FF1 through Lightning Returns, and a variety of the spinoffs and other titles not included in the ‘main series’. This list continues to undergo revision, and I seriously considered removing Final Fantasy 9 from it for personal reasons. In addition, no MMO titles will be played. Sorry, folks?

I think all of this is extremely important knowledge, and that the human race will be improved by my research. Let’s move on!

Previously on this series!

FfixLogo

The traditional mood music is at hand!

Version Played: Original PSX discs, played using a “slim” PS2 system

Final Fantasy IX is a game that for me, and mine, and my generation of gamers… feels more modern than it actually is. How many among us would be surprised to learn that Final Fantasy IX was released in November of 2000? We are approaching its 15th anniversary. It’s perhaps the newest of the old Final Fantasy games. Except, we don’t think of Final Fantasy VII as old, do we? It is, and we should. Some of us probably do. But that still seems odd to me. Truthfully, Final Fantasy XIII probably has more in common with VII than it does with I. Evolution is an ongoing process, and it’s one that ongoing fans have learned to accept.

But there’s a lot going on in Final Fantasy IX that would be both weirdly prescient and altogether ignorant of the future. It’s an interesting game in many ways.

The core conceit behind FFIX is that it’s a return to the “roots” of the Final Fantasy series. Superficially, there can be no argument about this at all. Final Fantasy IX brings back the saga of the four crystals that rule or shape the world (a premise which every game before Final Fantasy VI incorporates). It’s got airships, it’s got the ATB gauge, you buy and equip weapons and armor, and your abilities are gained as you level. After Final Fantasy V (with its variable Job System), and VI, VII, and VIII… which allowed total freedom of customization to the player given more or less application of effort… Final Fantasy IX has our characters locked into their classes, in a nod to Final Fantasy I and IV.

The designs of both the world elements and (particularly) the characters are also a deliberate reaction against VI, VII and (especially) VIII, which featured increasingly advanced technologies and settings that were undeniably darker than previous Final Fantasy realms. Final Fantasy IX’s – and this is important – surface tone is much goofier. The character designs reinforce that for the entire game. Of course, this game is actually full of some really messed up shit… way more than I remembered there being, in fact. Even in the darkest pits of this game’s soul though, the bobblehead characters work to lessen the impact. There’s nothing creepy about them, for the most part.

The unfortunate side-effect of your characters being “locked in” to their roles is that a certain party composition is virtually required to complete the game. With enough ability gimmickry, you might be able to pass the game’s challenges by overleveling significantly and abusing Auto-Potion, but in general, you will take one of the game’s White Mage characters, Eiko or Garnet. Neither provides any meaningful offense. Garnet has offensive Eidolons, but their MP cost remains prohibitive until perhaps the very end of the game, with a few notable exceptions. Physical fighters like Steiner, Zidane and Freya remain your bread and butter as always, though Black Mage Vivi can certainly contribute. Indeed, my own party for this entire playthrough consisted of Zidane, Garnet, Vivi, and Steiner.

The one nod to character customization available in this title are character “abilities” which are learned off of equipped weapons, armor and accessories. Calling this system “customization” is a bit of a stretch, as all unique character abilities are learned this way (i.e., Garnet’s weapons will teach her White Magic, which Zidane and others cannot learn), along with the same pool of generic abilities for each character. Some abilities are easier to come by than others on certain types of armor. For example, Zidane’s light armor and daggers have easy access to thief abilities, as well as physical combat abilities such as Bird Killer or Golemslayer. You have a limited number of points with which to “equip” learned abilities, and equipping the proper status resistances and combat proficiencies can mean the difference between victory and defeat in many of the game’s areas.

That’s about all there is too it, really.

I have trouble taking the main antagonist of this game seriously, and it turns some of the dramatic moments into silly ones for me. Aside from that, however, it would be difficult to earnestly argue that this game doesn’t live up to what the Final Fantasy brand represents. It’s even a little meatier than its predecessors in VII and VIII in terms of core story, taking a fair amount of time to work through. In addition, some of the battles in IX can be difficult unless you’ve substantially overleveled. Once you’ve identified the best abilities for each situation, you won’t have much of a problem, though this game’s final boss might be the most difficult one I’ve faced, other than the infamous Cloud of Darkness from FF3. As always, your own mileage may vary, but I have a hard time conceiving of ways to make a more infuriating storyline boss.

All of that goes triple for Final Fantasy IX’s superboss, the dreaded Ozma. Although there are many cheesy workarounds available to make him much easier to defeat, he will still feel completely impossible unless everything goes perfectly. I have defeated him, but elected not to do so during this playthrough. I did defeat the other optional boss, Hades, in Memoria, which gives access to the game’s most complete Synthesis Shop. Taking advantage of the items available there will make the game’s final challenges – and Ozma! – quite a bit easier to deal with, and Hades is nothing more than a fairly difficult boss.

On the whole, I found IX to be fairly uneven. Its plot is a bit on the ridiculous side, which I’ve come to realize is an appropriate thing to say about most of the Final Fantasy games. The only ones whose stories have stuck with me so far were IV, VI, and VII, and maybe a little bit of FFT. Will this improve? Hmmm! The gameplay is very straightforward, which is a mixed bag. Eventually you’ll reach a point where you’ll have your ‘strong’ party, and the occasional swap of abilities to protect against local status effects will be enough to find your way. Certainly, I did not find the system here to be nearly as engaging as the ones from VI, VII and VIII, but nor is it entirely without substance (such as in FF1). Still, probably the weakest system to be seen since FFIV’s similarly static model. When the game was fun and interesting, it was fun and interesting, but I did spend periods tiring of the random encounter rate, wishing the graphics were better, and hating the back of Zidane’s face with the scorching power of my brain. Him and his stupid tail.

But I knew going in that this one would be far from my favourite installment. I actually think I enjoyed it more this second, and probably final, time through. So there’s that.

One word of caution for anyone looking to play back through this title: I played on the physical PS2 plugged into my HDTV, and boy did this game look like shit. I highly recommend pretty much any solution but the one I chose. The text was mercifully still quite legible, and the cutscenes scaled nicely, but the in-game graphics… well. Let’s say that I was startled after having played through the nicely-upscaled Steam ports of VII and VIII, and the beautiful PSP version of FFT.

Oh, and join me next time when I discuss the jump to the Playstation 2 with Final Fantasy X!

This game’s soundtrack is far from one of my favourites. It took time just to pick two songs for this piece. Yikes.

Back to School #51: Trojan War (dir by George Huang)


TrojanWar

The 1997 film Trojan War may be a bit obscure (and, in fact, I had never heard of it until I came across it On Demand two weeks ago) but it has earned a place in the Hollywood record books as one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.  Made on a $15,000,000 budget, Trojan War was released into one theater, played for one week, and made a total of $309.

But, as far as simple-minded teen sex comedies, are concerned, it’s not that bad.

Brad Kimble (Will Friedle) is a nice but dorky high school student who, for years, has had a crush on an unattainable cheerleader, Brooke (Marley Shelton).  When Brad is invited over to Brooke’s house to tutor her in biology, he arrives just after Brooke has had a fight with her jock boyfriend, Kyle (Eric Balfour sans facial hair).  Soon, Brooke and Brad are making out.  Brooke asks Brad if he has a condom.  Of course, if Brad did have a condom, there wouldn’t be a movie.  The rest of the movie deals with Brad’s attempt to not only find a condom in California and but to also get back to Brooke.

(Apparently, in the 1990s, there was some sort of sudden condom shortage in California.  That’s all that I can guess after having seen Trojan War.)

Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds.  Brad’s car (actually, it’s his dad’s car) gets stolen.  Brad ends up having a run in with a crazy homeless man (David Patrick Kelly) who — in a rather obvious shout out to Better Off Dead — wants two dollars. Brad gets chased by a crazy dog.  Brad has to deal with a cameo appearance by a crazy Kathy Griffin.  Brad runs into a crazy bus driver (played by Anthony Michael Hall).  Brad ends up being pursued by a crazy police officer (Lee Majors).  And since the film itself is a bit of an unacknowledged remake of Some Kind of Wonderful, Brad is also pursued by his not crazy best friend, Leah (Jennifer Love Hewitt, who I’ve always liked because we’re both Texas girls and I share her struggle).  Leah is in love with Brad and Brad is in love with Leah.  He’s just not smart enough to realize it.

And indeed, that’s the key to understanding the plot of Trojan War.  Brad is just not that smart.  This is one of those films where the great majority of Brad’s problems could have been avoided if Brad just wasn’t a moron.  Fortunately, Brad is played by Will Friedle who was always the best part of Boy Meets World and who displays the unique ability to make stupidity cute.  Friedle is so likable as Brad that you’re willing to forgive the film for a lot.

That doesn’t mean that Trojan War is necessarily a good movie.  It’s likable but it’s never really good.  For every joke that works, there’s one that doesn’t.  I could have really done without the extended sequence where Brad gets lost over on the bad side of town and the movie suddenly trots out every negative Latino stereotype imaginable.  But, when the movie just concentrates on Will Friedle and Jennifer Love Hewitt, it’s likable enough to waste 90 minutes on.

If nothing else, it’s certainly more entertaining than most movies that made less than 400 dollars at the box office.

ovszerhaboru_2