Sunday, November 30, 2008

Shinju: Ten no amijima (Double Suicide) (1969)

The last film for my Art of the Floating World class, it was also my least favourite (story-wise, anyway). Based on classic playwright Chikamatsu's The Love Suicide at Amijima (1720), Double Suicide examines the effects of one man's actions in light of Tokugawa moral codes. Poor paper shop owner Jihei (Kichiemon Nakamura) has committed himself to the beautiful courtesan Koharu (Shima Iwashita) at the expense of his family and socioeconomic status. He wants to buy her freedom, but lacks sufficient funds. They speak of running away and killing themselves together (a fairly common practice in Japan at that time), but Jihei's wife Osan (also played masterfully by Shima Iwashita) convinces Koharu by letter to dissuade him from this action, appealing to her sense of sisterhood. Koharu agrees and pretends not to love Jihei so that he can return to his family and shop. It works at first, but word soon spreads that a rich merchant is planning to buy the courtesan, making her his indentured mistress. Koharu plans to kill herself in anguish, and Osan feels responsible for the woman's life but is dragged away by her disapproving family. Jihei has nothing left to lose, and goes after Koharu. Ultimately the story reaches its only possible conclusion: tragedy.

Ok so I wasn't really engaged by the plot. I felt no sympathy for the main character, Jihei, because he was a spineless, helpless crybaby unwilling to atone for the mistakes he's made. He has plunged his family into near-poverty because he spends all of his money on visits to Koharu and neglects his shop. His poor wife is forced to run the business and look after their two young children. I wondered why Koharu loved him, so their relationship was unconvincing to me. I understand that the narrative is a product of Chikamatsu's time period, as well as Japanese cultural confines, so I think my dislike stems from my inability to relate to it- I couldn't help looking at everything from Osan's perspective. The pace was almost excruciatingly slow, made worse by the fact that you know the ending from the very beginning. Some of the good things: I was really impressed with Shima Iwashita's double role! I didn't even realize she played both women. Furthermore, the imagery was dazzling. The crisp lighting, intricate backdrops and costumes, and dramatic camera work are what made the film worthwhile for me. I loved the puppeteer aspect as well- the play was originally written for bunraku (puppet) theatre, and the filmmaker chose to set loose several shrouded figures (invisible to the characters) who showed up from time to time to change sets, move props, or assist the actors' movements. It heightened the visual and metaphorical interest of the film; the characters prove unable to control many of their own actions, mainly due to societal restraints. But in the end, I'd say skip this one unless you are interested in innovative cinematic imagery, tragic love, or Tokugawa culture.

3.5/5


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Friday, November 28, 2008

Frost/Nixon (2008)

As much as I enjoy American history, I'll admit my knowledge of the 70's- on is a little shaky since we usually didn't get that far in grammar/high school classes. So though this movie is based on historical events, I was totally unaware of the story. Frost/Nixon follows British television talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), a man intent on scoring an in-depth interview with the recently-retired Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). He works tirelessly to prove his legitimacy to Nixon, his staff, news networks, and potential financial backers. He recruits ABC employee Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and Nixon historian/writer James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), who, along with Frost's producer John Birt (Matthew MacFadyen), intensely investigate the president's past, especially the Watergate scandal (it is Reston's goal to "give him the trial he never had"). Much of the film focuses on this pre-interview preparatory period, with fundraising, research, and an introductory meeting with Nixon, who is seen preparing himself for a boxing-like showdown and a longed-for rise from the shame and listlessness of retirement (the laid-back Frost is not seen as a threat as an interviewer). The interviews finally come together in a cozy living room. They are broken up into 2-hour segments spread across four days, with each part dedicated to one issue: Nixon The Man, Foreign Policy, Domestic Policy, and Watergate. Nixon proves to be a cunning opponent, easily sidestepping or twisting around many of Frost's denser questions. He drones on anecdotally, not allowing the surprised and unsure Frost to cut in. Everything they worked for seems to be for nothing, until new evidence on the Watergate scandal is brought to light in the final interview.

This movie was so good. Engrossing, well-paced, and a fascinating dual-character study of a perpetually optimistic, seemingly unshakable television host and his unlikely clash with the paranoid, greedy, desperate, and highly intelligent former president. The performances were excellent; I will be surprised if Frank Langella isn't nominated for something (there's a particular pivotal scene that's dying to be showcased at some awards ceremony). Martin Sheen was top-notch as well. I loved a lot of the side characters- especially Oliver Platt's and Sam Rockwell's diligent, bickering, Nixon-impersonating researchers. And Kevin Bacon as Nixon's extremely dedicated/ardent right-hand man Jack Brennan brought up interesting questions. Mainly, Kevin Bacon still acts? Also, when will these two guys break the sexual tension and sleep together? Ron Howard's brother Clint showed up for a few minutes as a cameraman and somehow earned himself an opening credit mention. Frost's sudden girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) felt really out of place, particularly since as an actress she deserves a better part than some pretty archetype who serves little purpose other than to inject some female presence into the story. Oh well, I guess. Otherwise I was really taken in by the film. The story is so interesting, especially since it was all new to me. I know some of it is fictionalized or assumed, but to me it doesn't lose its legitimacy as a portrayal of two larger-than-life men and the anxiety of the people around them yearning for closure after a serious setback for their nation.

4.5/5


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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle) (2004)

Yay! Of the Miyazaki films I've seen, Howl's Moving Castle has remained my favourite. It transforms me back into the imaginative bookworm I was in grammar school, constantly losing myself in romantic and adventurous magical daydreams. Appropriate response, I suppose, since this is based on the young-adult fantasy book by Diana Wynne Jones that I still haven't read (soon!). UPDATE: I read it, it was awesome.

The story is sort of complicated and several points are not explained well but everything else in the film easily makes up for this. The action unfolds in a steampunkian England- a world in which witches and wizards are common enough to be respected and feared, and war between kingdoms is brimming due to a missing prince. Reclusive, timid, young hat-maker Sophie mistakenly insults the powerful Witch of the Waste, who curses her into old age with no clue how to turn back and the inability to tell anyone what happened to her. She leaves her home and family, and eventually catches a ride in the Wizard Howl's mobile, fire demon-powered castle, where she stays on as a housekeeper after striking a deal with the demon: she figures out a way to break the curse on him and Howl, and he'll break her own old-age curse. Sophie quickly ingratiates herself with the house, Howl's young assistant Markl, and the demon Calcifer.

Howl pops in and out of the castle's magical door (leading to 4 separate locations so that he can keep it hidden), remaining kind but aloof and eventually proving to
be surprisingly insecure. As a devoted pacifist, he refuses to answer the summons from the king to fight in the war, instead disguising himself and enlisting to Sophie go to the palace claiming to be his mother. She meets up with the Witch of the Waste, who has a vendetta against Howl but has been reduced to a powerless and fairly incapacitated state and so can't remove Sophie's curse. Soon Howl takes it upon himself to transform into a monster and defend his home, and Sophie takes it upon herself to save him as well as break the curse upon him and Calcifer. Love triumphs over all, there's magic, etc.

Ok, so like I said, it's oddly complicated, especially in written form. But it is easy to get caught up in it when you're watching. The visuals are, of course, stunning, especially the landscapes and architecture/machine design. I wish I could dissect and reassemble that castle, so I could understand it and then live in it! I really dug the magic/steampunk combination. The story is really interesting and epic, while still full of those little endearing details Miyazaki injects into all of his films. I have read many comments talking about the film's departure from the source novel, which apparently is much more in-depth and includes more characters and development. It's understandable that drastic changes would frustrate fans of the book, and I look forward to reading it and having certain points more explained/expanded upon, but for me the overall effect of the movie is not altered with this knowledge. Miyazaki set out to combine Jones' basic story and characters with his own visual sensibilities as well as certain contemporary influences such as the war in Iraq. And in this he did a wonderful job. There are flying machines and magical disguises, betrayals and schemes; a weak-willed man finds his heart and an unconfident but hard-headed woman finds courage. It's all pretty great.

4.5/5

Extra Stuff:

Holy papercut Ben Millet has made an insanely detailed, meticulously crafted model of the castle out of paper. My god.


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Friday, November 21, 2008

Quantum of Solace (2008)

Ok, I feel sort of silly even talking about this movie, since probably any of you who are interested in it have seen it already, and the story line is probably known to everyone anyway. Plus I feel like my opinion isn't quite as valid as many other movie bloggers since I have barely seen any other Bond films. Oh well. This is the story of a really badass dude (Daniel Craig) who gets pretty caught up in his revenge. He's after the guy who set up his now-dead girlfriend Vesper, intending to find him through a huge, super-secret, super-mysterious worldwide organization... of evil. He specifically targets Dominic Greene, a powerful environmentalist taking part in many sinister deeds behind the scenes, including engineering a governmental coup in Bolivia in exchange for land rights containing (it's assumed) oil and having a henchman with the worst haircut. Bond spends a lot of time acting against orders from M (Judi Dench) and his ethics are rather skewed (he needlessly kills several people, etc). Thus, he is often secret-agenting with limited resources, making the stakes higher and the plans improvised. He runs into Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a woman connected to Greene, who harnesses vengeful plots of her own. They're at odds at first but eventually realize their teamwork is mutually beneficial. There's a lot of chasing, fighting, killing, shooting, traveling, and betrayal, with a little bit of sex and torture thrown in.

Um so I thought this movie was pretty good? Not sure why a lot of people are dissing it so much, but I assume it's because of its extreme departure (more so than Casino Royale it seems) from older Bond films. Also a big criticism that I've heard, which I agree with, regards the hyperactive camera work in the action sequences. Several scenes were incredibly hard to follow, especially the opening car chase. It was very choppy and over-stylized, making it more annoying than sleek. Director Marc Foster has previously done quieter, slower films like Stranger Than Fiction and Finding Neverland, so maybe he just wasn't accustomed to doing such fast-paced action sequences? Anyway good things: I liked the "rogue agent", no-holds-barred, has-to-fend-for-himself aspects of Bond's adventure. The action scenes were generally really well done and engaging, despite the sometimes-confusing shooting style. James Bond is a man who will be involved in a chase no matter what kind of vehicle he is in or not in- on foot, in a car, in a boat, in a plane: any of these situations are appropriate for chasing or being chased. Awesome. I also was pretty impressed with Camille's character, compared to how I'm told Bond girls usually go. She was very independent and pretty damn badass. She had her own background and story going on, and was for the most part not reliant on Bond. She wasn't in the movie enough, unfortunately. It'd be nice to see these two team up again but I don't know if that is a thing that would happen. Yeah so it was overall a very engaging action/thriller, with a decent, darker-themed storyline. There could have been more gadgets and there could have been more sex (though it would have felt inappropriate plotwise) but if you really want that stuff, aren't there like 20+ other Bond movies to watch with those things in them already?

4/5

"Another Way to Die"- Jack White and Alicia Keys (I like this song but the opening credits were weirdly done- too many nude giant sand ladies. And why was he falling? Also the song itself was out of place)


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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tommy (1975)

Get ready kids this will be a long one.

Yeah so back in the days when people started to make rock operas, The Who made Tommy. First released as a concept album in 1969, the work was made into a film with Ken Russell as director and Roger Daltrey as the eponymous character. The story is... loose, to say the least. It's like this: Nora (Ann-Margret) loses her husband (Robert Powell) in WWII and must raise their newborn son Tommy on her own. A few years later she shacks up with Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed), a larger-than-life camp director with a penchant for alcohol and lovemaking. One night the supposedly-dead father comes home and finds his wife in bed with Frank. In a confused rage Frank kills him with a lamp, all in front of little Tommy. Nora and Frank try to convince him he saw nothing, heard nothing, and won't speak about it. This triggers psychosomatic blindness, deafness, and muteness in the boy. Flash-forward several years later and Tommy has grown up, cared for by his mother who tries weird religious cures like the Church of Marilyn Monroe. Frank tries to get him laid by the Acid Queen (Tina Turner).
One day he stumbles upon a pinball machine and is instantly a pro, prompting his rise to stardom as a world-class pinball player, even defeating the champ (Elton John). He makes his family super rich but Nora is still sad about his diminished senses. His celebrity increases to cult status (like the thousands of people worshiping kind, not the Rocky Horror kind) after a miracle occurs. But we all know fake pinball celebrity religions never last. Also all of this is completely sung.

Ok so it's a commentary on the commercialization of famous people and their position as pseudo religious figures. I get it, I really do. And the whole "See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me" mantra speaks to the alienation we all experience due to varying circumstances. That's ok. I dig the music and a lot of the visuals were interesting and trippy, including the highly stylized costumes and settings. It's certainly a unique story, so that's always good. But honestly... it just wasn't that enjoyable. I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I'm not super familiar with The Who but I dig the songs I know, and I had heard very good things about the film/play and thought a 70's rock opera about pinball could do no wrong. Unfortunately there were many things that felt off. A lot of the performances were sub-par. I know Ann-Margret is like this great sex symbol and of course we all love when she rolls around in soap suds and beans but her voice wasn't that great and her acting was flat. Oliver Reed was just loud most of the time. Roger Daltrey spent most of the movie with a blank stare (which is understandable) and shirt off (also no complaints) but very little effort is made to actually characterize Tommy (this is partially shortcomings of the writing, not just his performance). Tina Turner was annoying. Jack Nicholson is very out of place. I liked Elton John and Eric Clapton, but that's about it. I didn't feel particularly interested in any of the characters and the story was too jumpy so I wasn't exactly hooked there. I spent most of the movie feeling like I was missing something- why is this movie such a big deal? Was it just novel for its time? Is it just the fans' ardour for the album spilling over into its other incarnations? It's not that I disliked it, I just thought I'd like it a lot more than I did. It was definitely interesting and it made an impact, but it didn't feel particularly smart or incredible. It might just something that works better conceptually than physically. The ending left me in a confused and buhhh kind of mood- suddenly religion is ok? Jesus was my co-pilot all along? I didn't get that, honestly, so if someone can clarify things for me I'd be most grateful.

3/5

The best scene/song in the movie.



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Role Models (2008)

Well, it looks like David Wain and Ken Marino have made another movie! And Paul Rudd is there (again)! Awesome! So Role Models is the tale of two dudes who work for an energy drink company, going around giving speeches to school children about how to avoid drugs by drinking more sugar water. Wheeler (Sean William Scott) digs dressing up like a giant minotaur, sleeping with lots of women, and palin' around with Danny (Paul Rudd), a devilishly handsome cynic who hates his job as he hates most things. Eventually his inability to be happy leads to being dumped by lawyer and long-term girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). In a hopeless rage he crashes the Minotaur truck (with Wheeler inside) into a statue and to avoid jail they must do community service time in a Big Brother program run by former drug addict Gayle (Jane Lynch). Wheeler is paired with young, foulmouthed, ornery Ronnie (Bobb'e J Thompson), and Danny gets teenage medieval LARP-fan Augie (Christopher Mintze-Plasse). At first they clash, but eventually learn to enjoy each other's company as they get to know each other better, and some fun (and funny) times are had. Then there are more problems, and ultimately an epic battle (literally) of a resolution. And some people make out.

Yeah, so I thought this movie was really funny! I have read some reviews calling it unoriginal or a tired set up, but I have never seen anything with this specific concept before. I liked the idea of combining the dude-best-friends with loser-mentoring-unfortunate child formulas: kids interacting with immature, poorly-prepared adults to create a comedy for similarly-minded adults. It had some good writing (it better have after like 4 rewrites, including contributions from Paul Rudd in his first big screen writing credit), and a fabulous cast. Every few minutes my cohort and I were elbowing each other as we recognized people from The State (AD Miles! Kerri Kenney! Joe Lo Truglio [in the most fun role]! KEN MARINO!). David Wain himself even made an appearance. Elizabeth Banks was rather short-changed, but I don't think anyone is walking into this movie expecting her to have a lot of screen time. At least it is immediately apparent that she is the smart one. Also she's lookin' sharp in lawyer suits. Anyway it's got a lot of unexpected hilarious parts, as well as some missed marks. It's not the most original thing, and some of the jokes are stale, but I don't think that hindered the overall effect of the movie. I walked out of it feeling good.

4/5

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day Night Day Night (2006)

I hadn't heard of this movie until a few minutes before I watched it with some friends. Mostly we knew it had won a lot of awards and didn't have much dialogue. What it turned out to be is this: The total experience of an unnamed young woman (Luisa Williams) the two days leading up to her suicide bombing, with the camera focused on her for the entire movie. She is dropped off at a dingy hotel in New Jersey, where she scrubs herself rigorously clean. She receives calls from a man, giving her specific instructions to close the shades and meet in the morning. Masked men arrive to prep her, giving her more "normal", tighter-fitting clothes than what she had brought. They help her memorize a fake ID, "just in case". She is photographed wearing a military outfit and holding a gun as a kind of preemptive memorial, and/or example to future terrorists. She is blindfolded and taken to an underground facility and outfitted with a backpack explosive device, controlled by a remote disguised as an mp3 player. She takes a bus into New York city, where she walks around the 40's, enjoying pretzels and a candy apple in what she knows will be her last hours. The moment is going to happen soon. Both she and the audience wonder if she will actually go through with it.

Day Night Day Night was very slow-moving, almost grueling at the beginning. Pretty much the only dialogue is the repetitive direction given by her handlers, instructing her over and over in various matters of the operation. We find out very little about her. We don't even know her reason for doing it, or what the group she works for represents. I assume it's something religious because there are a couple scenes where she and the men pray together. Her attention to modesty and a whispered "Am I doing the right thing?"-type prayer also point to this. Her motivation is not the point (though I remain curious). The film is giving insight into both the behind-the-scenes operations of an extremist group, as well as an ambiguous portrait of the kind of person they can persuade to be a suicide bomber. We spend the duration of the movie trying to crack her face and read between the lines of her scant conversations. As it progressed, I was more drawn into the story and into the girl's possible background. However, I have mixed feelings about the ending. It was very dragged out and somehow didn't feel like enough. Overall it was daring compositionally and impressively acted (Luisa Williams had never acted before). Julia Loktev is an interesting new director, and I hope her next film will maintain the evocative mood and compassion of Day Night Day Night, but with more of a focus on story.

3.5/5


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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Go-Getter (2007)

Man it feels like I had to wait ages to see this movie, after reading about it a year or so ago only to see it never come out near Boston. It finally hit Netflix, and boy am I glad it did, since it was really enjoyable! Writer/director Martin Hynes crafts an engaging road movie with lots of interesting characters and a beautiful blossoming central romance. On a seeming whim, 19-year-old high school senior Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci) decides to steal a car and embark on a multi-state trip to find his long-lost half brother Arlen (Jsu Garcia), so he can tell them their mother died. Soon the car's owner (Zooey Deschanel) contacts him through the phone she left in the car. She knows who he is but seems content to let him keep the car until his journey is completed, as long as he keeps her updated on his experiences. Mercer hasn't seen his brother since he was 5 (they're about 20 years apart), so he has very outdated information on his whereabouts. He follows a trail from house to house and city to city, usually finding out Arlen did something illegal and was forced to leave. He meets up with childhood crush Joely (Jena Malone), who joins him for part of trip with the promise of taking his virginity amidst wild nights in Reno. More about Mercer's character and that of the car's owner is revealed throughout the film, often through their own increasingly personal conversations. It's fairly standard developmentally, but like most road movies, the way everybody gets there is the important part.

This was a pretty good movie, I thought. I liked Lou Taylor Pucci very much- Mercer is flawed and naive but still endearing and clearly good at heart. Zooey Deschanel is amazing in anything, and I dug seeing Jena Malone as a sexy temptress (as opposed to the more victim/girl-with-a-problem roles she has done in past). Judy Greer and Maura Tierney had fun cameos. I immediately fell for the relationship between Mercer and the car owner, which was an important part of the film but could have been more of a focus. I like the format of road movies in general- the kooky, one-scene-each characters, the dumpy motels, the personal growth and forced friendships. It's something I don't really tire of. The Go-Getter sticks to the formula but manages to be engaging, funny, and novel. There were some interesting visuals- especially Mercer and the car owner's conversations- and though I've read some criticism of the hand-held camera work, I didn't really notice it. A really cool thing about this movie is that because M. Ward did the soundtrack, he did a song for it with Zooey Deschanel, effectively forming She & Him.


4/5

"When I Get to the Border"- M. Ward featuring Zooey Deschanel

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Stop Making Sense (1984)

After seeing David Byrne perform one of the best concerts I've ever been to (so much dancing!), it seemed like a good idea to finally see this movie. And what a fun time! This is a straightforward concert film, with footage from three different Talking Heads shows edited together fairly seamlessly. David Byrne starts off by walking out on stage alone with a boombox, letting us know he's "got a tape he wants to play" and proceeds to do a solo "Psycho Killer" with pre-recorded backup. Slowly the rest of the band comes out to play, rolling out on wheeled stands for the drums and keyboards. Two female back up singers in matching purple outfits complete the set up. It is going to be a good night.

The staging and camera work are notably simple- no dramatic closeups or ecstatic crowd shots. It is very realistically portrayed, without edited frills, so that the music is the clear focus. The lighting isn't very showy, and the background is often blank but for some songs they had very cool images or backlights. The band danced all over the place, often in a synchronized Running Man. Towards the end Byrne got out his notorious Big Suit and managed some impressive hip movements. Songs they play include "Heaven", "Life During Wartime", "Girlfriend is Better", a dragged-out, break-downy "Take Me To the River", and "Crosseyed and Painless" for the closer. They also did one Tom Tom Club (the side project of husband-wife duo bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz) song, "Genius of Love". It was ok- sort of silly and upbeat, but not the Talking Heads so not as good as anything else in the movie. Naturally, the best scene of the entire film is this:

"Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)"


It is a very good movie, and I am not a person who usually does the concert-DVD thing. Naturally, it is most suited for Talking Heads fans, but really I think anyone who enjoys a good musical performance would dig this.

4.5/5

"Girlfriend Is Better"
"Burning Down the House"
"Swamp"

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Peur(s) du Noir (Fear[s] of the Dark) (2007)

In the French-language Fear(s) of the Dark, six short films- from French, Italian, and American artists- dealing with various aspects of fear and scary stories are combined. They are all animated in black and white, but done in very different visual and narrative styles. Let's talk about each one individually!

>My favourite one was probably the first, by Blutch(who doesn't appear to have his own website). It follows a frightening 18th-century(?) figure barely restraining a pack of ravenous dogs. One by one they each escape and tear up unsuspecting passersby. It's done in dark sketchy pencils, heightening the overall anxiety of the piece. There's no dialogue, just the sounds of clicking shoes on cobblestone and echoes of dog barking. Yeesh.



Charles Burns had the ickiest short that certainly made more than one member of the audience squirm. A solitary academic college student finally opens up enough to start dating a cute girl, only for her to gradually be taken over by gross praying-mantis-like bugs who want him as a host for their eggs. Or something to that effect. It's animated with stark, harsh shapes and lines, in a more cartoon/comic style, with halting movements. Definitely the creepiest story, but not as visually stimulating (for my personal tastes) as most of the others.



The only female artist to head one of the films, Marie Caillou created an interesting and ambiguous tale of a young Japanese school girl forced by a malicious doctor to experience a long nightmare. In the dream, after being viciously beaten up by her classmates, she limps home along a forest path past the tomb of a murderous, ghostly samurai. She is surrounded by various demon figures and ultimately possessed by the samurai himself. Every time she tries to wake up from the horror, the doctor re-induces sleep. Reality and nightmare are confused and intermingled, with no real explanation for the girl's incarceration and study. The artwork is done in Flash, in an anime-like style with muted greys and whites. It was soft but clean, with an apt dreamlike quality but cartoonish enough to not be particularly frightening. I liked the art and story (especially the subject of horror as experienced by children), but have mixed feelings about serious animation being done in the Flash medium.


I liked Lorenzo Mattotti's piece a lot. Narrated by a young man reminiscing about a particular summerhe spent at his aunt and uncle's farm house, it deals with the hunt for an unidentified monster stalking the neighborhood. The narrator's uncle goes missing, as does his best friend. The following hunt for the alleged beast brings him to a shocking conclusion- the monster may be someone he knows, and he's been haunted by that realization ever since. I dug the sketchy but smooth artwork- possibly(?) a mix of traditional and digital- and the artist's attention to shadows.

The last piece was my other favourite, a short by Richard McGuire (who also seems to have no website or even Wikipedia entry). A man enters a seemingly abandoned house to shelter himself against a raging blizzard outside. His only light is from a candle and the fireplace. For a while he rests and warms up, until he finds a photo album pictorially narrating the history of the house's inhabitants. A lonely young woman takes over the estate after her parents die, and proceeds to be involved with several men over a period of years. Each man's face is removed from the photos. The housecrasher hears noises and investigates upstairs, fearing the unhappy woman's ghost remains and that he is her next victim. It plays out the best way this story can, and it is awesome. The whole film is done in complete black and white, with no gradations and little linework. He focuses on shape, pattern, and the play of light. It's extremely difficult to achieve but extremely well done. It had a disturbing ending, and was the story that lingered with me the most.

Between the films were free-style monologues by an anxious liberal French woman, waxing poetic about fears of how she is perceived by others, how things change, etc- basically the fears of everyday life. It's animated by graphic and typeface designer Pierre Di Sciullo, in fluxuating abstract shapes that don't seem to have a connection to her words. It was the one I liked least, feeling out of place with the rest of the films. The animation did nothing for me.

Overall it's an enjoyable look at different aspects of fear, but most of all an exciting collection of experimental animation. Because of the involvement of multiple animators, it's a little hit-or-miss, but definitely still worth a look. You can see a lot of clips and work from all of the artists at the film's website.

4/5

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

What better way to celebrate Halloween than by watching the main Robert Rodriguez film I haven't yet seen? OK! In this heist/kidnapping/action/vampire movie penned by Rodriguez pal Quentin Tarantino, a lot of unlikely things happen. I'm not talking about the whole "hundreds of vampire creatures attacking a bar" thing. I'm talking about a bullet going through a hand and using duct tape to bind it, sexy exotic dancer Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) allowing sleazeball Richard Gecko (Tarantino) to suck beer off her foot (hmm I wonder what fetishist wrote this screenplay?), and oh yeah: George Clooney and that aforementioned sleazeball are cast as brothers?! In what universe could the same person have spawned such a smooth-voiced, classically handsome gentleman along with a greasy, pinched-faced, perpetually whining barely-fully-formed human? Ugh. Rodriguez, please, stop letting your friendship with this asshole get in the way of your movies. You are so much better than that.

Anyway, From Dusk Till Dawn starts out as a straight up action movie with brothers Richard and Seth Gecko on the run with a bunch of stolen money, who ultimately take the Fuller family (Harvey Keitel, Ernest Liu, and Juliette Lewis) and their camper hostage until they can make it to Mexico to hand over their spoils to their boss. We realize early on that Richard is prone to angry outbreaks and needless murders, and is generally unstable. Seth is more sensible and seeks to kill as few people as possible, yet still remains loyal to his brother. They make it to the bar where the meeting will take place, after which the Fullers will be free to go. After waiting a little while they realize that the dancers and bar employees are all vampires who feast on customers when night falls. So the Fullers and the Geckos team up with bar patrons Sex Machine (Tom Savini) and Frost (Fred Williamson) to stave off the growing tide of hungry creatures.

There are great action and gore sequences, as in any Rodriguez film. Clooney feels out of place in reference to other roles I've seen him in, but he does a good job with the part. Fun cameo appearances besides Salma Hayek include Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, and John Hawkes. The screenplay is tell-tale Tarantino but with less pop-culture references and long conversations, due to the quick-moving plot. I like that halfway through it was suddenly a vampire movie, forcing kidnapped and kidnappers to work together and forget all about the initial central plot points- the money and the escape from cops. The improvised weaponry was also a fun A-Team-like time. But it didn't all fit together as well as I'd hoped. Maybe things happened too fast, or he was trying to put too much into one movie, or it wasn't scary enough, but something about the whole thing just didn't feel right. I have loved almost every other Rodriguez flick I've seen (even Spy Kids) but this didn't seem to live up to their smart, well-paced, action-packed but still heartfelt standards. It was still enjoyable but it's not the kind of movie I feel like rewatching. If you're a Rodriguez or Tarantino fan it's still a must-see, but could probably be passed otherwise. I'd recommend watching it with a group of people who are prone to commentating, as it lends itself well to Tarantino jokes and general "Question Mark?" moments.

3.5/5

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

Kevin Smith reminds us of his softer side in this best-friends-who-secretly-have-a-thing-for-each-other comedy about being broke and making porn. We've got Zack (Seth Rogen, a man who should always wear glasses), a scruffy cafe employee with a dirty mouth. Living with him is his best friend since grammar school Miri (Elizabeth Banks, looking good but with way too much hair), an adorable clothing store cashier with some pent-up frustrations about her looks and general situation in life. So, she convinces Zack to go to their high school reunion with the hope that they still are better off than some of their former classmates, and with the intention of revenge-scoring with Bobby Long (Brandon Routh), the guy who called her "Stinky Linky". There, they meet successful porn actor Brandon (Justin Long), who plants the seed of potential porn star glory in their heads. After missing several payments, their water, gas, and electric are shut off and they decide to make a very low-budget amateur porno to get some quick cash. They recruit Deacon (Jeff Anderson), who used to film high school basketball games, to be the cameraman, fellow cafe employee Delaney (Craig Robinson) to produce, wannabe actors Lester (Jason Mewes) and Barry (Ricky Mabe), dancer Stacey (real-life adult film actress Katie Morgan) and Bubbles (Traci Lords), a woman who can do something very special with her namesake. Zack and Miri act in the film as well, prepared to sleep with one another for the sake of keeping their apartment, resolving to not make a big thing of it and keep their deep platonic friendship. Of course, sex complicates things and maybe they have feelings for each other but will act like jerks instead of just talking about it. But things will probably work out ok eventually.

I don't know why Zack and Miri Make a Porno is being massively panned. I thought it was funny and interesting, with fantastic characters and good premise. The plot was a little thin but I don't watch Kevin Smith films for complex stories. He maintained his penchant for crass, sharp dialogue, superfluous nudity, great soundtracks, and Star Wars references. Along with stellar performances from the co-stars, Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks have great chemistry. There are a lot of over-the-top gags and some serious gross-out moments. The whole thing is a nice combination of lewd humor and heartfelt romance- a love story for the anti-prude. Admittedly, it doesn't stand up to the comedic antics of Mallrats and Clerks but I really liked seeing Smith frame a movie around a pair of best friends who aren't both dudes, as well as bringing a romantic relationship to the center of the plot. I guess in a way he's looking back to Chasing Amy, but with someone who isn't Ben Affleck (thankfully) and with more pornography. It's outside the View Askewniverse, so I did sort of miss Jay and Silent Bob and the familiarity of New Jersey, but not in a big, detrimental way. Overall I dug it, and I think people are being too hard on it. It's not the best thing ever, and I didn't expect it to be. It was funny and surprisingly endearing and I'll still be (as ever) anxiously awaiting this guy's next movie!

4/5

Extra Stuff:
Kevin Smith's Account of how the movie came to be, especially Seth Rogen's involvement

"You and I Are a Gang of Losers"- The Dears (a song I would not have expected to hear!)
"Hey"- The Pixies (great party scene song)

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Clueless (1995)

I saw this in a good used DVD deal at Blockbuster and couldn't help myself, because Clueless is awesome and I am rarely not in the mood to watch it. This modern adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma focuses on privileged Beverly Hills teenager Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and her life as a popular, fashionable student trying, along with her friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) to use her lofty status and considerable persuasive skills to help others, often in the form of matchmaking. She sets up her teachers (Twink Caplan- who also produced- and Wallace Shawn) to secure better grades for her classmates. She spots impressionable new student Tai (Brittany Murphy) and, after a makeover, seeks to set her up with hot shot Elton (Jeremy Sisto). She even tries to snag a man herself when slick Christian (Justin Walker) rolls into town James Dean-style. When not busybodying she hangs around the house with her snarky ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), a college student helping her lawyer father (Dan Hedaya) with a case. Of course ultimately her matchmaking and makeovering backfire, and we learn that even rich people have to deal with regular teenager problems. But everyone finds love in the end!

As shallow as it seems at first glance, it is actually a very smart and funny adaptation of a classic story. The characters are exaggerated for satirical effect, but still manage to be relatable. The cast is swell, with most of the teen characters actually played by young adults. Amy Heckerling wrote a wonderful script, with great interactive dialogue (especially, of course, any conversation with Paul Rudd), plus the 90's lingo and fashion are always fun in retrospect. There are jokes about art (Claes Oldenburg, he's way famous!) and jazz music (Do you like Billie Holiday? I love him!) and cosmetic surgery (She died when she was young- a freak accident during a routine liposuction). There are people of different lifestyles and backgrounds. It doesn't shatter teen-comedy standards or cause any great revelations, but it's a really enjoyable, easy-to-watch movie with a very sweet center.

4.5/5

In the 4 years since I wrote this Clueless has turned into one of my absolute favorite movies, so it's easily a 5/5 by now. Maybe I should write a better review of it. Some day...

My original poster design for this film is for sale.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Alphabet Meme

Whoa, pressure, as I've been tagged by The Flick Chick to take up Fletch's challenge of listing my favorite movie for each letter of the alphabet. Let's try to do this.

Amelie
Brazil
Cannibal! The Musical
Dark City
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Grindhouse
Harold and Maude
Iron Man
Jeux d'enfants
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Life Aquatic, The
Mallrats
Nightmare Before Christmas, The
Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Philadelphia Story, The
Quiet Man, The (It is possible this is the only movie starting with Q besides Quiz Show that I've seen)
Rocky Horror Picture Show, The
Singin' in the Rain
Trust
United States of Leland, The
Victor/Victoria
Wristcutters: A Love Story
X2: X-Men United
You Can't Take It With You
Zoolander

That was so hard! A lot of this was just done by looking at my DVD collection and picking one from there, so I'm sure some are a bit off. It is mostly a self-indulgent thing, obviously. We'll return to our regularly scheduled reviews/rants next post.


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Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) (1926)

The Adventures of Prince AchmedA few weeks ago I was playing around on Wikipedia, looking at articles on Pixar and Brenda Chapman when I stumbled across the silent German movie The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving animated full-length film (and some consider it the first ever). Directed and animated by Lotte Reiniger, with assistance from her husband Carl Koch, it is one of the few feature-length films to utilize silhouette animation, in which figures and backdrops are painstakingly cut out of cardboard and moved over a backlight. The story is a mash up of several Arabian Nights tales: An evil magician creates a horse that flies and presents it to the king in order to obtain his daughter. The king's son, Prince Achmed, tries it out and rockets up into the heavens. He eventually lands on a mystical island, where he falls for Peri Banu, princess of demons. After some coercing she decides to love him back, only to be kidnapped by an Asian king. Achmed rescues her, but must now defeat the demons who don't want her to leave their island. They get the help of The Witch (the evil magician's enemy) and meet up with Aladdin, who's been trying to win the hand of Achmed's sister. They defeat the demons together, with the brunt of the work done by The Witch (female empowerment!) and arrive home safely just in time for a double wedding. Sweet.

The Adventures of Prince AchmedThe story is interesting and told well, with minimal intertitles and good pacing, but really it is apparent that Reiniger made this film almost purely for its visual stimulation. It is breathtaking to see- the movements of the characters are so fine-tuned and choreographed, reflecting her interest in Chinese puppetry. Each individual set piece and figure contain a wealth of details and intricacies of design. Her dedication and sacrifice for art are easily recognized in every frame. In the spirit of the Expressionist movement influencing German cinema at the time, experimental smoky effects populate the magic scenes and the prints were evocatively color-tinted with soft blues, greens, and yellows, though unfortunately the original final print is missing and the available version is a restoration of the black and white. Additionally, the music is gorgeous and emotional, composed by Wolfgang Zeller as his first film score (the start of a prolific career). The Adventures of Prince Achmed is fascinating for any animation enthusiast, and will surely be entertaining for any fan of fantasy and adventure stories. Also let's support women in animation! For once! (And really, female filmmakers in general.)

The Adventures of Prince Achmed4/5

Here's a collection of scenes from the movie. Ignore the song; I watched it on mute.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Super Troopers (2001)

After missing out on a viewing of Beerfest my friends had, I figured I might as well make up for it by watching that other (better) Broken Lizard movie, Super Troopers. As usual, it was a good choice. The story follows the plight of stupid but lovable highway patrolmen whose branch is in danger of being shut down. They spend most of their time pranking guilty drivers as well as each other, while half-heartedly trying to solve a murder/drug conspiracy. They're in competition with the jerkface local cops, poised to take over the highway when our heroes get fired. However, the put-down lady local cop Ursula (Marisa Coughlin, in the only substantial female role) is sick of her sexist coworkers and may be willing to help the troopers keep their jobs with her insider knowledge. Also she might form a pretty adorable relationship with my favorite one, Foster (Paul Soter). Maybe. No spoilers or anything. Really, the plot here doesn't mean much so it's not important to go into it any more.

Now here is a movie that is just funny. It doesn't try to be especially smart or pc or innovative, but it succeeds in being vastly entertaining, quotable, and chock full of likeable dudes.
Most of the film is an excuse for the comedy troupe to make with the shenanigans and male bonding, which is cool as I wouldn't expect much more. There's a nice (though somewhat out of left field) cameo by Linda Carter, sex-crazed Germans, a syrup-drinking competition, moustaches, and one thing everyone likes to see: asshole teenagers getting their comeuppance. It's an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, especially with a group of friends. I'll admit I thought it looked stupid when I first saw the trailer, but honestly it's very funny and surprisingly clever at parts.

4/5

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Neco z Alenky (Alice) (1988)

Neco z AlenkyAfter being both fascinated and freaked out by Czech director Jan Svankmajer's Otesánek, I sought out his other forays into the creepy, absurdist world of experimental stop-motion animation blended with live-action and landed upon Neco z Alenky. This re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's classic story Alice in Wonderland is both beautiful and disturbing. The action of the story has been moved to a decaying, empty house; Alice is played by a real live girl, with every other character embodied by some sort of taxidermied animal or anthropomorphic item. She navigates the house through doors of various sizes and mysterious drawers, desperately following the White Rabbit as he hops around leaking sawdust. The Caterpillar plays host to myriad slithering socks, while the wooden string puppet Mad Hatter periodically demands to switch seats. Shadowy duels are fought for the cut-paper King and Queen before our heroine is put on trial. Alice's size changes multiple times, turning her into a doll when she is miniaturized. There is very little dialogue, except sparse narration from Alice herself, and no music, giving the entire film an eerie stillness. There is noticeable attention to sound effects. It appears there is only a dubbed version for the American DVD, as a side note to future renters.

As this is a reinterpretation, a lot of the story is adjusted or simplified. What's important is the visual imagery of Alice's plight. The use of stop-motion animation for all of the other characters is remarkable and refined. Seeing it next to a living person has an unsettling effect that I can compare to nothing else. The sheer unnaturalness of their movements is extremely heightened when related to Alice. It adds a refreshing level of creepiness to the whole tale. Overall it's an incredibly interesting, visually arresting film, with an imaginative take on a familiar subject. It's hard to describe in words so below are some clips.

4/5


The White Rabbit is introduced.


The Caterpillar scene.


Swordfight, Queen of Hearts

Packaged with the DVD was one of Svankmajer's short films, Tma/Svetlo/Tma (Darkness/Light/Darkness), in which a clay body assembles itself in a small empty room. Another gorgeous piece of animation from a truly innovative artist. Watch it in its entirety below.



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Casino Royale (2006)

There was so much freaking poker in this movieBecause the Quantum of Solace trailer looks so rad, I figured I'd ready myself for it by finally seeing Casino Royale. I have a pretty uninformed perspective, as I have seen like two Bond films in my lifetime and admittedly don't really know/care much about the franchise. (Though after watching that Mythbusters about the gold paint, I do want to see Goldfinger.) Anyway this re-invention of the Bond icon has him (Daniel Craig) as a fledgling spy out on his first 00 mission: Stop a bad guy from winning a poker game because then he would be funding terrorism. Or something. I have to be honest here: I didn't really follow the plot of this movie. Mostly I had no idea what was going on. It started off with a really really kickass chase sequence that involved scaling a half-constructed building but then before you know it it's like an hour of people playing poker. He is accompanied by the gorgeous Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), assigned to babysit Bond and ensure he doesn't lose all his money. He of course tries to charm her, but, for what I'm told is a first in the series, she is actually very intelligent and has a mind of her own and therefore resists his advances (at first). After the poker game and a near-death experience there is some torture and betrayal and ultimately a building collapses (it's awesome). Bond learns he should never trust anyone, etc. I suspect this was all just a so-so set up for a super-amazing revenge-themed sequel, which is cool.

Casino Royale had some excellent action sequences but I felt the middle of the film dragged a lot. I was ok with the fact that I couldn't/didn't really follow the story, since I was in it for the fighting and chasing, not plot. It might be the kind of movie I'll enjoy more after repeated viewings. Daniel Craig was good and I liked Eva Green. Dame Judi Dench was ice-cold as M. I guess the bottom line is, probably you will enjoy this movie a lot if you are a Bond Person, and a fair amount if you aren't? Either way I'm still psyched for Quantum of Solace.

3/5

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Léon (The Professional) (1994)

After trying to convince my housemate with words that he would be turned on by Natalie Portman even if she were 12, I decided to just show him Léon. Because of the Natalie Portman thing, but also because this movie defines the term "badass". She plays Mathilda, a foul-mouthed, quick-on-her-feet, surprisingly mature 12-year-old girl whose entire family is murdered by drug dealer Stansfield (Gary Oldman).

She goes to her quiet neighbor Léon (Jean Reno) for sanctuary, and upon finding out he is a professional assassin, coerces her way into becoming his apprentice with hopes of taking revenge. Unfortunately Stansfield is very powerful, and even the deadliest assassin might not be able to take him. There are a couple montages of Mathilda learning things and hanging out with L
éon. There is a lot of violence. There is some squirmishness from the viewers as we all try to deny our attraction to very-underage Natalie Portman. It has everything you could ever want in a romantic action movie.

Léon has some wonderful action scenes, and such a generally awesome and endearing title character that anyone should enjoy watching him do his thing. He's a killer, but not for sadistic or cynical reasons. He has a strict physical and moral code. Mathilda has had to grow up very fast, and often you forget how old she is due to her way of speaking and clear-headedness. But there are flashes of innocence throughout the movie to remind everyone that she is probably too young to deal with what she is currently forced to deal with. Their relationship is an important but ambiguous subject. It is clearly deeper than that of a mentor-student or father-daughter, but Léon knows it can never be more than that, despite Mathilda's exterior maturity. It's a really interesting situation. Otherwise, it's just a kickass film with excellent performances all around, including Gary Oldman being totally ca-razy!

4.5/5

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